It was a nightmarish scene that had worried American security and military officials for years: The United States embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, were under siege from insurgent forces. The Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based insurgency allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, had penetrated the city’s maze of Hesco barriers, concrete T-walls, checkpoints, and international forces, launching a complex attack in which burqa-clad suicide bombers penetrated the city and snipers fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles from a half-finished nearby building. Amb. Ryan Crocker, a veteran of bombardment of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during the height of the surge, tried to appear unruffled. “This really is not a big deal,” Crocker said. “If that’s the best they can do, you know, I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness.”
Despite the impressive work the ambassador has done in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this wasn’t the most believable response. It was reminiscent of other recent excuses U.S. officials have offered about our troubles in Afghanistan. When Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s half brother Ahmed Wal Karzai was killed, it was supposedly a positive, because now we could put a reformer in his place. When the mayor of Kandahar was killed — a reformer who might have taken the place of Ahmed Wali as a power broker in the south — it was said to be a sign of Taliban desperation. NATO spokespeople have been saying similar things since way back in 2005 about every Taliban suicide attack — all signs, we were told, that the insurgency was weakening.
When I first visited Kabul in 2008, I was amazed when soldiers and diplomats told me that rockets and mortars were rarely, if ever, fired at NATO headquarters or the U.S. embassy. The Taliban never managed an attack of this magnitude in fortified Kabul, and the recent nearly 20-hour battle is a devastating indictment of how much security has deteriorated in the capital city. “The attacks have been an inseparable part of my daily life over the past three months,” an Afghan friend who lives in Kabul told me. She’s never seen the city so unstable, she said. This is the year of suicide attacks, targeted assassinations, and the war’s largest death toll.
According to our commander in chief, things are getting better in Afghanistan, which means we can leave. After June’s spectacular attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel — a five-hour siege killing nine civilians and two Afghan policemen — President Obama, who had announced his drawdown plan in Afghanistan earlier that month, argued that there had been progress. “Kabul is much safer than it was. Afghan forces in Kabul are much more capable than they were. That doesn’t mean that there are not going to be events like this potentially taking place and that will probably go on for some time,” Obama said in a press briefing.
Why, then, if security is improving, are there more high-profile attacks than ever before in the most secure, fortified area of the country? It takes a suspension of disbelief to imagine that a weakened insurgency is suddenly becoming more strategic and cunning in using its assets.
Last week’s assault brought out comparisons to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, during which the Viet Cong nearly overran the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Televised nightly, the scenes from Saigon horrified the nation and wiped out much support at home for the war. What happened in Kabul, though, didn’t come close to having a Tet effect. Considering the magnitude of the event, the story barely made a blip. Perhaps this was because no Americans were killed, though 16 Afghans lost their lives. And maybe Americans are already sick of this ten-year war. The helicopter crash that killed 32 Americans last month had much more impact, though that loss of life, horrifyingly tragic as it was, has little strategic significance when compared with an assault on the embassy. Each incident like this (and there will be more as we head for the exits) is going to be like a little Beirut embassy bombing — a wasteful loss of life and a stain on America’s prestige.
Obama rarely talks about Afghanistan these days. He doesn’t feel compelled to explain why he tripled the American men and women he sent to war, then undercut the mission by prematurely announcing a drawdown date. In his effort to have it both ways, the result will be a mission doubly botched twofold. Our eventual withdrawal may look more like the siege of last week if we continue to live in denial about the shortcomings of our current strategy. In his former post as ambassador to Lebanon in 1991, Crocker remembers being helicoptered with his staff from Beirut to Cyprus. This isn’t how America should be leaving Kabul, but it’s increasingly likely if political expediency trumps the troubled reality on the ground.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.