KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban scored a strategic and political victory with brazen, well-timed attacks in the heart of Kabul on Monday, but the failed assaults on key government buildings also showed the limits to their military capacity.
The raids carried out by at least 10 gunmen, including suicide bombers, were well coordinated and bold even for Afghanistan and paralyzed the capital for several hours.
However, while the militants spread out across a strategic area near government ministries and a luxury hotel, they failed to seize any of their declared targets and instead holed up in a poorly defended shopping center.
“They just want to show their power, it was an ‘attack show’ from the Taliban, not a military-based action. I think there was not a military goal,” said Wahid Mudjah, a Kabul-based writer and political analyst.
“They just wanted a show for the international community.”
The attacks were perfectly timed. They came as Afghan President Hamid Karzai was swearing in cabinet members inside the presidential palace only hundreds of meters away, and after days of media chatter about a new “reintegration” drive to lure insurgents away from the battlefield.
They were also dramatic, with an exploding ambulance adding to compelling images of a city under siege. Gunfire and loud explosions shook Kabul as black smoke billowed from the shopping center where fighters battled security forces for hours.
Headlines in newspapers and television stations around the world talked of “terror in Kabul” and shattered confidence.
The overall casualty toll, however, was relatively low. And government forces never lost control of their key buildings.
Three members of the Afghan security forces and two civilians were killed and 71 people were wounded. Twenty people died last February in a similar commando-style attack.
“The attack was both a success and a failure for the Taliban. It was a psychological success but a failure in that they weren’t able to cause a lot of casualties to Afghan security forces,” said Abdul Halim Achakzai at the Kabul-based Center for Conflict and Peace Studies.
Capital cities are always vulnerable -- in Britain the Irish Republican Army managed to strike regularly at the heart of London, a far more modern, less chaotic capital, during their violent campaign against British control of Northern Ireland.
“For all the chaos, the damage was not that bad. This was not 1996 where the Taliban basically rolled into Kabul,” Kamran Bokhari, regional director for Middle East and South Asia at international think-tank Stratfor, told Reuters.
That the Taliban were able to smuggle in weapons and explosives was in some measure a reminder of the government’s policy in keeping Kabul a relatively open city.
Creating a barricaded fortress risks hurting the economy and cutting off the government.
But the raid also highlighted some of the more thorny problems Karzai and his Western backers face in winning over a country as sick of official corruption as it is of violence.
Some of the shopkeepers sifting through the scorched remains of their stock blamed not the attackers but the Taliban’s foes.
“The (foreign) and Afghan troops acted very inhumanely by using flammable materials and completely destroyed our properties,” said shopkeeper Abdul Rasheed. ISAF said they had troops in the area but had not torched any shops.
The Taliban seem as keen to bolster what support they have among ordinary Afghans as they are to intimidate the government and foreign and domestic security forces.
They recently issued orders to fighters to protect civilians, and during the raid the Taliban did not target shoppers or shopkeepers, instead shooting at walls and ceilings and ordering them to leave, said center manager Abdul Fatah Feroz.
“Clearly, the Taliban cannot allow for a sizeable amount of collateral damage, they cannot stomach that. This is an insurgency, it relies on public support,” said Bokhari.
But the Taliban did succeed in spreading fear in an already weary and war-sick population.
“If the Taliban are strong enough to launch attacks just outside the presidential palace, how can we expect better security in the future?” said Feroz, as a crowd of around 30 shopkeepers sifted through the torched remains of their stock.
Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli and Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Paul Tait