A Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s fortified capital Tuesday triggered fresh concerns about the ability of U.S.-trained Afghan security forces to secure Kabul as international combat troops withdraw from the war-torn nation.
A small truck laden with explosives rammed the gate of a compound housing foreigners on Kabul’s eastern outskirts, Afghan officials said. Two gunmen then tried to enter the breached gate. Four people, including two Afghan security guards, were killed in the attack, and no NATO forces were slain or wounded.
The assault was the latest in stepped-up bombings in the capital. Over the past week, suicide bombers have targeted the chief of police and a female lawmaker, both of whom survived.
Before Tuesday’s attack, analysts had suggested that the Taliban is set to exploit weaknesses in Afghanistan’s security forces as U.S. and NATO troops dwindle to about 12,000 over the next two years.
Thomas Joscelyn, a security analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Taliban is “actually in pretty good shape to make a stunning comeback after the West leaves,” despite more than a decade of U.S.-led warfare.
U.S. intelligence officials have long warned of senior al Qaeda operatives fleeing into Afghanistan to avoid U.S. drone strikes on hideouts in Pakistan.
But analysts say a more disturbing development centers on behind-the-scenes assistance the Taliban has received from Pakistan — as well as from the Haqqani network, whose terrorists move easily across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“They’ve already been providing broad support for the Taliban, even with the U.S. there,” said Mr. Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal.”With the U.S. drawing out of the region, that’s only going to increase.”
Taliban attacks have increased following the Sept. 29 inauguration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the uptick in attacks may presage a Taliban surge.
But the Taliban would need to exploit “a significant breakdown” in Afghanistan’s forces and government to truly threaten Kabul, Mr. Kugelman said.
“All those factors would need to be in place in order for the Taliban to take over the country,” he said.
“You would have to have mass desertions in the army,” he said. “You would have to have a huge moral breakdown. You have to have situations where people would not be willing to fight.”
Analysts have debated how rapidly a Taliban offensive may unfold. Some believe there will be a significant increase in attacks next spring, but that the militants are unlikely to make a serious push until after U.S. and international forces completely pullout in 2017.
Concerns about the Afghan security forces’ ability to beat back a Taliban advance mounted this month, when Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who heads all international forces in Afghanistan, said that Afghan security forces are being killed in battle at an unsustainable rate. On Nov. 5, he reported that 4,634 Afghan troops were killed in 2014, compared to 4,350 in 2013.
In addition, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in October urged U.S. officials to “carefully monitor the development” of Afghan forces, citing an Afghan soldier opening fire during a joint training exercise and killing a U.S. Army general last August.
Meanwhile, uncertainty shadows Afghanistan’s political landscape, as Mr. Ghani Ahmadzai and his election rival — Abdullah Abdullah, now prime minister — forge a new government after a bitterly contested presidential contest.
Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the two have yet “to figure out how to convince people throughout the country that the central government is worth supporting.”
“We don’t know how this new government is going to appoint provincial and district governors,” he said. “We don’t know how this new government is going to handle the politics of the police.”
David Sedney, who until last year served as the Obama administration’s deputy assistant defense secretary for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the militants could garner enough support from corrupt governors and police to seize strategic parts of the country next year.
“I think the odds are reasonably high that they might be able to take over one or two district centers for more than several days,” said Mr. Sedney. “I think that’s the activity that we’ll see them moving toward in 2015. The next step would be provincial centers, and that would be a much bigger step, and after that, a major city.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
NOTE: An earlier version of this report incorrectly suggested the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction was an arm of the Pentagon. The error has since been corrected.