Taliban hijack the US's narrative
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - General David Petraeus wrote in his 2006 counter-insurgency manual
that the United States command headquarters should establish a "narrative" for
the counter-insurgency war - a simple storyline that provides a framework for
understanding events, both for the population of the country in question and
for international audiences.
But this week's Taliban attacks on multiple targets in Kabul, including the US
Embassy and US-North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters, are the latest
and most spectacular of a long series of operations that have given the
insurgents the upper hand in establishing the narrative of the war as perceived
by the Afghan population.
Those attacks and other operations that generated headlines in
2010 have been aimed at convincing Afghans that the Taliban can strike any
target in the country, because they have their own agents within the Afghan
government's military, police and administrative organs.
In the wake of the latest attacks, the Taliban war narrative achieved a new
level of influence when a political opponent of President Hamid Karzai
associated with a prominent Pashtun warlord charged that the Taliban could not
have pulled off such a sophisticated set of coordinated attacks in the center
of the capital without help from within the Afghan security apparatus.
The Taliban have mounted three high-profile attacks in Kabul over the past
three months involving suicide bombers and commandos with rocket-propelled
In late June, six suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, the
favorite spot in the capital for Westerners to hold conferences, which left the
hotel in darkness for many hours.
And in August, the insurgents carried out a much more complex attack on the
British Council, a semi-governmental agency involved in organizing cultural
events. The attack involving a suicide bombing at a key intersection in western
Kabul followed an attack on the police checkpoint guarding the British Council,
and a suicide car bomb that destroyed the wall around the council and allowed
the team of suicide attackers to enter the compound.
Attacks on the capital were supposed to have been made impossible by a "ring of
steel" around the city. After the Taliban had carried out an attack in downtown
Kabul in January 2010, the Afghan police, with funding and advice from the US
military, set up a system of 25 security checkpoints around the capital that is
guarded by 800 officers of the Kabul City Police Command battalion.
Nevertheless, the insurgents were able to smuggle weapons, including
rocket-propelled grenade launchers, through the cordon and sustained an all-day
attack on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters.
For the first time, a prominent political figure in Kabul has charged that the
attackers must indeed have had help from people within the Afghan government's
Mohammed Naim Hamidzai Lalai, chairman of the parliament's Internal Security
Committee and a political ally of powerful Pashtun warlord Gul Agha Sherzai,
charged that the "nature and scale of today's attack" showed that the Taliban
had gotten "assistance and guidance from some security officials within the
government who are their sympathizers", according to the New York Times.
"Otherwise it would be impossible for the planners and masterminds of the
attack to stage such a sophisticated and complex attack, in this extremely
well-guarded location without the complicity from insiders," he said.
Central to the Taliban strategy has been a series of assassinations of top
Afghan government figures that has demonstrated their ability to place their
own agents within the most secure spots in the country.
In mid-April, a Taliban suicide bomber wearing a policeman's uniform was able
to penetrate security outside the Kandahar police headquarters and kill the
provincial police chief.
On May 28, a Taliban suicide bomber who had been able to gain access to the
governor's compound in Takhar province detonated his suicide vest in the
hallway outside a meeting room and killed the police chief for northern
Afghanistan, General Mohammad Daud Daud.
In July, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Karzai and the
Mafia-style political boss of Kandahar province, was killed by the long-time
head of his security detail, Sardar Mohammad. Mohammad had been trusted by US
Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency, who had very close ties
with Wali Karzai.
But Mahmoud Karzai, another brother of the president, told Julius Cavendish of
The Independent of London a few days after the assassination that Mohammad had
made a trip to Quetta in Pakistan and had met with the Taliban, and that he had
been getting phone calls in the middle of the night. The Karzai family had
concluded that Mohammad had been recruited by the Taliban to kill Wali Karzai,
according to the brother.
Perhaps the most important element in building the Taliban narrative has been
the constant drumbeat of attacks by Afghan soldiers and policemen on US and
NATO troops. According to official NATO figures, between March 2009 and June
2011, at least 57 foreign troops, including 32 Americans, were killed in at
least 19 such attacks.
United States military and intelligence officials reluctantly concluded that
that most, if not all, of the attacks had been the result of recruitment by the
Taliban intelligence service of Afghan security personnel to kill US and NATO
troops, at obvious risk to themselves.
In June, the US decided to send an unknown number of counter-intelligence
agents to tighten procedures for identifying troops who might be more likely to
be recruited by the Taliban.
Adding to the Taliban war narrative was the carefully-planned breakout of
nearly 500 prisoners from the security wing of Sarposa prison in Kandahar city
after a few prisoners spent months digging a 300-meter tunnel. The breakout was
possible only with the help of a Taliban underground agent or sympathizer who
provided copies of keys to the cells, with which Taliban prisoners involved in
the plan could unlock the cells of their fellow prisoners and so they could
escape through the tunnel.
Two weeks later, the Taliban carried out a complex attack on key government
targets in Kandahar city, including the governor's office, the Afghan
intelligence agency and the police station. The offensive in Kandahar involved
seven explosions across the city, six of which were the result of suicide
The Taliban were able to strike freely in Kandahar despite what Canadian
Brigadier-General Daniel Menard had called a "ring of stability" - a security
cordon that supposed to keep Taliban fighters from getting into the city.
In February 2010, Menard, who was commander of Task Force Kandahar for the
ISAF, had boasted that, with a total of nearly 6,000 US and Canadian troops
deployed against Taliban forces in Kandahar province, "I can literally break
But the Taliban continued to operate freely in the city. As Peter Dmitrov, a
former Canadian military officer who was working as a security consultant to
non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan, observed last November to The
Canadian Press, "The ring hasn't really shut closed in any way, shape or form."
The US war strategy has been based at least in part on convincing Afghans that
the United States would remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, and that the
Taliban would weaken. But the Taliban war narrative that it is able to
penetrate the even the tightest security and cannot be defeated appears to have
far more credibility with Afghans of all political stripes than the narrative
put forward by US strategists.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.