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Afghanistan Weekly War Update: Attacks in Herat and Taloqan

May 31, 2011 | 2034 GMT

Herat Attacks

A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) was driven into and detonated at the
gate of the Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) office in a residential area in
central Herat, Herat province, on May 30. Four militants wearing explosive vests
subsequently moved into a nearby building from which they fired into the compound.
Whether they had planned in advance to fire from the building or whether they had hoped
the VBIED would breach the perimeter (part of the outer wall was destroyed) so they could
enter the compound itself remains unclear. In the ensuing firefight, three militants were
killed and one reportedly was captured.

In a near-simultaneous attack, a suicide bomber (some reports indicate he rode a motorcycle

while others say he deployed a VBIED) detonated his bomb in a crowded roundabout
known as Chawk-e-Cinema. It is not clear if this explosion ² which according to some
reports came before the attack on the PRT office ² was intended to be a distraction from
that assault.

Both attacks saw a total of around four civilians killed and as many as 50 wounded
(including five Italian soldiers), most at the roundabout. Taliban spokesman Qari
Mohammad Yousef issued a statement claiming responsibility for both attacks. He sought
to downplay civilian casualties, saying they were unintentional and that the PRT office was
the main target (though this is a hard case to make in the case of the roundabout attack).

The city of Herat is one of seven areas where security is set to be handed over to Afghan
forces in July, the first in a transition process scheduled to last until 2014. In these areas,
security already largely is in Afghan hands.

Attacks in Afghanistan cannot be prevented completely. As in any urban area, people will
congregate as part of their daily routine, whether at a bus stop, a market or a security
checkpoint. Some level of violence can be expected to continue across the country for the
foreseeable future. Perimeters can be designed and layered to make even complex attacks
difficult, however. Notably, the PRT assault failed to breach the perimeter despite the use
of a VBIED. If security at hardened targets can blunt an assault that includes a VBIED, that
is as important a sign for the looming transition as the Taliban¶s ability to conduct
operations across the country.

But while the security perimeter held and the Taliban appear to have failed to achieved the
damage at the PRT office they had hoped for, attacks that allow the Taliban to remain
visible and relevant are still valuable for them. This is the latest in a series of recent
complex assaults ringing the country counterclockwise from Kandahar to Nuristan to
Jowzjan. Moreover, the Taliban have an incentive to conserve their resources while the
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is at its peak strength.

Taloqan Attack

The northeastern province of Takhar saw a more effective attack May 28 when a suicide
bomber managed to reach the heart of the governor¶s compound in the capital of Taloqan
and attack a number of senior leaders. Gen. Mohammad Dawood Dawood, a former
Northern Alliance military commander and the present commander of the Afghan National
Police in Regional Command North, or RC(N), and Gen. Shah Jahan, the provincial police
chief, were both killed along with two German soldiers and two others. The German ISAF
commander of RC(N), Maj. Gen. Markus Kneip, and provincial Gov. Adbul Jabar Taqwa
were wounded. Taloqan was the last major area the Taliban seized control of before Sept.
11, 2001, in their struggle against the Northern Alliance, giving the attack added symbolic

The extent to which this was an inside job remains unclear, but reports suggest the assailant
was in the corridor when a meeting ended, indicating at a minimum he possessed actionable
intelligence regarding the time and location of the meeting. Also, that a suicide vest made it
that far inside the perimeter and that the individual was able to loiter among a number of
security details strongly indicates inside assistance with intelligence and actual on-the-
ground assistance the day of the attack. (The suicide bomber may have been an insider

The inherent susceptibility of indigenous forces to this sort of compromise and penetration
is a reality of counterinsurgency and nation building. One of the challenges is countering
that compromise and penetration with similar efforts within the insurgent camp ²
something with which the U.S.-led ISAF thus far has struggled.

]arzai¶s Latest Ultimatum

After 12 children and two women were killed in a May 28 ISAF airstrike in the Nawzad
district of Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan (a panel of seniormost U.S. officers
in Afghanistan issued a formal apology May 30), Afghan President Hamid Karzai
demanded that all airstrikes on Afghan homes cease. In a statement rife with charged
language, Karzai threatened that the Afghan people would drive ISAF from the country by
force if the airstrikes did not cease.

The Afghan leader has made similar demands addressing the concerns of the Afghan
people, including demands over airstrikes (though not as strongly worded as this most
recent ultimatum) to calls for the end of nighttime raids by special operations forces. Any
similarly situated politician would have to make such statements for domestic consumption,
and Karzai ² who has traditionally moderated his public demands ² is no exception.

The statement also reflects the realities of combat among a civilian population in which
Taliban fighters often fight from inside or close to homes and mosques against U.S. and
allied foreign troops trained and conditioned to respond to fire with superior force, up to
and including calls for fire and close-air support. Great pains have been taken to tighten
rules of engagement and reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties ² efforts that
have had a tactical impact on the ability to respond quickly and decisively to insurgent
targets as they present themselves ² but the sustained use of fire and airpower in this sort
of operational environment necessarily entails some collateral damage and civilian
casualties. They cannot be removed from the equation completely.

This is both the important and noteworthy part of Karzai¶s statement: Opposition to ISAF
and the counterinsurgency-focused campaign across the country is on the rise among even
anti-Taliban elements of the government and general population. Airstrikes are not going to
cease entirely while U.S. and allied troops are engaged in day-to-day security and clearing
operations across the country. As in the past, some accommodation likely will be found
with the Karzai regime. But the trajectory of declining patience and tolerance of and
increasingly virulent opposition to ISAF military operations across broader and broader
swaths of Afghan society continues to worsen, and that shows no sign of changing.
_akistan and North Waziristan

Reports have begun to surface that Pakistan is preparing to launch an offensive into the
restive North Waziristan district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The
United States has long demanded a more aggressive Pakistani stance along the Afghan-
Pakistani border, and this is the last remaining district in the FATA that Pakistan has not yet
engaged in major clearing operations. As such, it has become an ever more important
sanctuary for remnants of al Qaeda, the Haqqani network and the Tehrik-i-Taliban
Pakistan. Tackling the first two groups are key American concerns while tackling the last is
a key Pakistani concern. (Many within the Pakistani leadership actually consider the
Haqqani network an asset in terms of leverage and influence in Afghanistan.)

With particularly rugged terrain sheltering a number of armed and tenacious undesirables,
Islamabad has been reluctant to commit forces to this area when it already has some
140,000 troops spread thinly across the northwest. But the unilateral U.S. raid on
Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, and even more so the recent attack on Pakistani
Naval Station Mehran, a naval air station in the port city of Karachi, have begun to shift
perceptions in Islamabad within the military and intelligence elite regarding the urgency of
the FATA operation.

It remains unclear how extensive and how robust the push into North Waziristan will
actually be, much less when it might begin. But a serious Pakistani offensive, even though
it will probably not directly or actively target the elements the United States hopes it will,
would be a significant additional pressure point along the border. Even the looming
prospect of one may be altering the calculus of key actors currently enjoying sanctuary
there, prompting them to focus on preparing for the assault. It could also cause civilian
refugees to flee en masse, which could provide cover for targeted individuals likewise
vacating the area. Either way, it will not alter the fundamental dynamics of the war in
Afghanistan anytime soon, though it would certainly be a positive development for
American-led efforts there.