12 August 2015

Signs That the Afghan Army Is Slowly Improving

Rod Nordland
August 9, 2015

In Handling Barrage of Attacks, Afghan Forces Show Training Is Paying Off

KABUL, Afghanistan — The unprecedented wave of attacks here — three major bombings in less than 24 hours that killed at least 65 people and wounded hundreds of others — was arguably a major victory for Taliban forces, who proved they could mount simultaneous operations with devastating effect, including on an American military base.

In Afghanistan, the attacks on Friday were also being seen in other lights. Afghan security forces handled three complex emergencies almost simultaneously, proving perhaps that training of Afghan forces has paid off. Afghan officials were quick to congratulate themselves, noting that in none of the three attacks, scattered widely around the capital, did the insurgents manage to breach their targets’ inner defenses. Most of the victims were outside the walls, either passers-by or defenders at the gates.

Afghan officials were quick to blame the intelligence agencies of “neighboring countries” — code for Pakistan, which has long sheltered the Haqqani network and given sanctuary to the Taliban’s leadership. “The insurgents carry out such attacks targeting civilians in order to attract the attention of the world, and to hide their failures on the battleground,” said Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense. “On the front lines they’ve been defeated by the Afghan national security forces, so that’s why they resort to conducting suicide attacks.”

General Waziri added that 97 percent of would-be attacks by the insurgents are thwarted by Afghan government forces before they can take place.

Nonetheless, the barrage of attacks on Friday made it not only the single deadliest day in Kabul this year, but the deadliest in many years. The attacks, which caused the first American military fatality since June, were also proof that even American soldiers, now here in greatly reduced numbers and on mostly a training and advising mission, are still vulnerable.

While the Taliban’s claims of hundreds of dead were almost certainly wildly inflated, the insurgents did prove that despite the infighting in their leadership they are still able to evade the heavy security cordon around Kabul almost at will, and mount sophisticated, large-scale attacks.

All three of the attacks were directed at security targets: a military intelligence headquarters for the Ministry of Defense; the Kabul Police Academy’s training facility; and an American and coalition military base, Camp Integrity, just north of Kabul’s international airport. The fighting there was so intense that an American soldier was killed along with eight military contractors, according to a statement from the United States military.

The attack on the American base took place at 10:15 p.m. Friday, and continued for hours, with the insurgents using a suicide car bomber to blow a hole in the outer wall, allowing at least three other attackers to enter. They were stopped at an inner gate by coalition soldiers and contractors.

The Taliban were quick to take credit for the attack on Camp Integrity as well as the separate attack earlier in the evening on the Police Academy, where a suicide bomber, wearing an explosives vest under a police cadet uniform, mingled with a crowd of cadets who had returned late to the base after their weekend’s leave. They were waiting to be allowed to enter the heavily guarded base when the attacker detonated his vest.

Ramin, 21, who lives near the academy, was coming home when the bomb went off. “Suddenly I saw a column of flame rise up from among the cadets,” he said. “Those killed were lying on the ground like slaughtered sheep. In the distance, I saw a man who was wounded, he would struggle to sit and call for help, but no one got to him to help.”

Witnesses said that most of the 40 people who died were cadets; an official statement put the death toll at “about 40, cadets and civilians.”

The insurgents did not take responsibility for the third attack, a massive truck bomb that exploded at 1 a.m. outside the headquarters of Afghan military intelligence, possibly because nearly all the victims were civilians. The bomb leveled rows of shops and dozens of homes, killing at least 15 and wounding 240.

The attacks were vivid evidence that the insurgents’ struggles with an internal succession crisis have not prevented them from carrying out large-scale attacks.In the past two weeks, the Taliban have been forced to admit that their founder and leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was dead, and apparently had been since early 2013. Shortly after, reports came that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder and leader of the Haqqani network, the most violent wing of the Taliban, had similarly died, last December, although Taliban officials denied that.

“The divisions among the Taliban are mostly political, but militarily the enemies are united and they still follow the same tactics,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan general. “When they can successfully carry out not just a single attack, but three in one day, on strategic targets, this shows the weakness of the government. They haven’t learned anything in 14 years of attacks.”

The attacks Friday highlighted the weakness of the coalition government, still wrestling with internal dissension between followers of the president, Ashraf Ghani, and his chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. In the middle of a long and bitter war, the country remains without a confirmed defense minister 11 months after Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah’s inauguration.

Mohammad Osman, 55, a former government employee, was one of many who wondered how the attackers could reach the center of the city with something as large as a truck bomb. “There has to be insider cooperation, or it would be difficult to get into Kabul,” he said. “The Afghan government is a failed and divided government, which is why security is deteriorating.”

In the Qasaba neighborhood near Camp Integrity, Salim, 28, had similar doubts. The area has so many bases and training facilities, as well as the international airport, that movement through it is difficult even for residents. “Everyone in our neighborhood is concerned. How could they manage to pass through several security checkpoints?” said Salim, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

Mohammad Shafi, 43, who lives near the gate to Camp Integrity, said, “Yesterday’s attack broke our hearts to see how helpless we are,” adding, “Nobody feels safe anymore.”

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