Thunderous blasts and intense bursts of gunfire erupted in Kabul and other Afghan cities Sunday as a major Taliban attack mocked claims that the decade-long, U.S.-led effort to create a stable, secure Afghanistan was nearing completion.
Explosions rocked Kabul’s heavily defended and supposedly secure diplomatic quarter where President Hamid Karzai’s palace, NATO’s headquarters, the fortress-like U.S. embassy and other heavily sandbagged diplomatic missions – including Canada’s – are clustered. Eyewitnesses reported running firefights, incoming rockets and rocket-propelled grenades whizzing overhead. Elsewhere in the city, some Afghan MPs, atop the roof of the parliament, were firing their own AK-47s to repel squads of Taliban fighters, including suicide bombers, according to news agencies.
The Afghan capital awoke to a second day of blasts on Monday morning, as government forces worked to defeat insurgents holed up in two buildings.
Coupled with simultaneous suicide attacks in Jalalabad and other cities, and a daring weekend assault on a prison in Pakistan where hundreds of Islamic insurgents were freed, the Taliban offensive makes more difficult U.S. President Barack Obama’s search for an early exit from an increasingly unpopular, and perhaps unwinnable, war.
Barely a month before Mr. Obama hosts NATO leaders – including Canada’s Stephen Harper – at a May 20-21 summit in Chicago, the alliance is riven over its longest, bloodiest and most expensive war as it heads for a messy, inconclusive ending.
In Kabul, dozens died in the clashes, another audacious Taliban assault in the heart of the capital and pockets of fighting that continued into Monday morning. The U.S., British, German and Japanese embassies all came under fire, although no casualties were reported among foreigners.
“The Kabul administration and the invading forces had said some time ago that the Taliban will not be able to launch a spring offensive,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, adding the “attacks were the start of our spring offensive.”
While largely symbolic – as yet Taliban fighters lack the military capacity to seize and hold ground in the capital – the attacks signalled that the see-saw struggle for Afghan hearts and minds continues. The Taliban has said – for a decade – that is can outwait the West’s dwindling resolve. And the Taliban, while denying its own atrocities, makes powerful propaganda pointing to the alternative narrative of U.S. rogue soldiers on murderous nighttime massacres.
The U.S.-led foreign forces – still numbering over 125,000 – have handed over relatively secure swaths of the war-ravaged country, including Kabul, to Afghan security forces.
Sunday’s attacks against at least seven locations were largely defeated by Afghan forces, backed up by Norwegian Special Forces and covered by allied helicopter gunships.
U.S. Marine General John Allen, the U.S. commander of all American and NATO forces, praised Afghan troops for beating Taliban attacks that were intended, he said, to show Kabul’s “legitimate governance and Afghan sovereignty are in peril.”
The U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was even more dismissive of the attacks. “The Taliban are very good at issuing statements, less good at fighting,” he told CNN.
But in Kabul, the clashes continued into the night and, some observers said, were the largest co-ordinated insurgent strikes since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power in Kabul 11 years ago after al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, against the United States.
For Mr. Obama, any major upsurge in summer fighting could make it harder to defend his exit strategy from what he once called “the right war” in contrast to Iraq. On Mr. Obama’s watch, U.S. troops in Afghanistan have more than tripled, to roughly 100,000, but that “surge” of boots on the ground to win hearts and minds, especially in the Taliban heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand, has been marred by a grim parade of atrocities.
Koran-burning by U.S. soldiers, videos of U.S. Marines laughing and urinating on Afghans they have just killed and – worst of all – the murderous rampage by a U.S. army sergeant who killed innocent women and children as they slept have sullied the Obama surge. Most Afghans, like most Americans, want U.S troops out of Afghanistan.
With peace talks with the Taliban still not yet started, Mr. Obama and other Western leaders are caught between a pullout promise of 2014 and the worrisome possibility that Kabul’s forces may be inadequate to fight off the Taliban even then.
There are fears that too hasty a pullout could tip Afghanistan into civil war or again make it a training ground for violent Islamic groups like a resurgent al-Qaeda.
So far, the Afghan war has largely been absent from November’s presidential election. But a summer of fighting and dying could quickly turn Mr. Obama’s handling of the conflict into a campaign issue.
With a report from The Associated Press