Taliban "intelligence" and another failed attack
Afghanistan is sometimes referred to as the forgotten front in the War on Terrorism, but it was brought firmly back into focus this week after a failed bombing attack said to be aimed at Vice President Cheney during a surprise state visit. It is easy to make too much of the attack, as has been evident from some of the coverage. I was interested in particular in claims (first originating in Pakistan, no friend to the Afghan government) that this incident showed that the Taliban had compromised the Afghan intelligence network; that there was no other way they could have known about the “top secret” visit.There is a PR element in every human bomb attack, just like there was in the Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire in Vietnam. But the message that the media tends to miss in these cases is that they are acts of impotence by people who do not have the capacity to do something effective. Anyone committed to killing themselves can generally find a way to do it. That is the real message of events like this, but the media spin encourages similar events and plays intot he enemy script.
Maybe there was no easy way for the enemy to know about the visit in advance — but once the vice president arrived in-country Monday afternoon it became global news. The earliest wire report I could find was from AFP, dateline BAGRAM AIR BASE, at 12:18 P.M. GMT (4:48 P.M. Kabul time), and no doubt the news was out locally much sooner. Reports quickly followed that Cheney’s planned meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was delayed for a day because of the snowy weather. Other reports helpfully noted that the visiting party would be taking helicopters south into Kabul — thankfully no one was hanging around with a Stinger.
The vice president spent the night at the airbase, and the attack took place at around 10:30 the next morning. This was plenty of time for reported bomber Mullah Abdul Rahim to get his plan together, which apparently involved trying to infiltrate Bagram disguised as a local laborer or in a delivery truck. Not exactly 9/11 caliber. When this approach quickly failed Rahim took out some targets of opportunity near the gate, though far fewer people were killed than initial reports indicated. Bottom line is that this was not a triumph of the crafty adversary and his superior intelligence network, but the impromptu exploitation of an opportunity presented by the delayed visit, based on “intelligence” freely available to anybody in the world. And, one might add, it was a total failure.
Of course some commentators adopted the line that the attack was successful because it allowed the Taliban to “send a message.” Well, no, it was an attempt to kill the vice president, which failed to achieve its objective. If there was a message it was the same one we always knew they were sending, that they hate our people and want them dead. It’s the same message we have for them. Others interpreted it as a sign of Taliban strength, but it is hard to see how such an amateurish attempt signifies anything of the kind. Yet ever since the Tet Offensive there has been a propensity to give our enemies an “A for effort” regardless of whether they achieve their objectives. It is a self-imposed asymmetric disadvantage that is puzzling and difficult to overcome.