- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A devastating Taliban suicide attack that killed at least 28 people and wounded more than 300 others Tuesday in the heart of Kabul has sent concerns soaring that Afghanistan’s struggling security forces will be overmatched in the summer fighting season, which many believe will be among the bloodiest on record.

Tuesday’s attacks, the worst carried out by the Taliban in the Afghan capital since at least 2011, also sent shock waves through the debate among officials at the Pentagon and lawmakers on Capitol Hill over President Obama’s plan to cut the roughly 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to some 5,000 by the time he leaves office early next year.

Two militants carried out the assault, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told The Associated Press. One attacker drove the small truck packed with explosives that caused the initial blast, and he was followed by the second assailant, who entered the compound in the chaotic aftermath and opened fire before being killed by security forces, the spokesman added.

“With no doubt, there was a security vacuum, and that needs to be investigated,” Mr. Sediqqi said in Kabul.

The White House said Tuesday that it was too early to tell what “impact this attack would have on our military posture going forward,” while the State Department said Washington remained committed to its programs in support of the 170,000-troop Afghan National Security Forces.

“Attacks like these today only deepen and underscore our support for the people and the government of Afghanistan and its efforts to bring security and stability to their country,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the spectacular attack showed desperation on the part of the Taliban.

“The insurgents are unable to meet Afghan forces on the battlefield and must resort to these terrorist attacks,” Gen. Nicholson said in a statement.

Taliban take credit

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack that appeared to target members of the Afghan government’s intelligence wing — officially called the National Directorate of Security.

The minibus was detonated outside the front gate of an NDS unit known as “Department 10,” which is located near the U.S. Embassy in downtown Kabul and provides security for government officials and Afghan dignitaries. U.S. officials said no Americans were killed in the assault.

Most of the victims of the minibus attack were reportedly Afghan civilians. It was not immediately clear how many Afghan National Security Forces soldiers died in the gunbattle after the blast.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior national security analyst with The Brookings Institution in Washington, said Tuesday’s attacks were a sign that the Taliban may be taking the gloves off for this year’s spring offensive.

“So far the Taliban have used such huge attacks with some restraint,” Mr. O’Hanlon said, “so this could be a sign of changing tactics or even a sign of desperation in some ways.”

In its latest threat assessment on Afghanistan, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, warned that Afghan security forces are simply “unprepared to counter the Taliban militants’ summer campaign.”

Taliban commanders are looking to exploit “readiness gaps” within the Afghan ranks with “increased insider attacks, assassination campaigns, and attacks against Western and diplomatic targets in Kabul City and beyond,” the April 12 assessment said.

Some analysts scoffed at Gen. Nicholson’s claim of Taliban weakness.

“It’s utterly absurd that he could say something like that,” said Bill Roggio, an editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “He’s either lying through his teeth or he has zero situational awareness of what’s going on in his theater of operations.”

The reality, according to Mr. Roggio, is that the Taliban are already engaging Afghan forces on multiple battlefields in Afghanistan — from the south, where the insurgents control nearly half of Helmand province, to the north, where they launched a coordinated offensive against Afghan forces last week.

The Long War Journal estimated Tuesday that the Taliban presently control or strongly contests more than 80 of Afghanistan’s 400-plus districts.

“What the Taliban is doing is pressing the Afghan security forces on multiple fronts, and the Afghan forces don’t have the numbers or the capability to handle it,” Mr. Roggio said in an interview. Tuesday’s strike was a “clear Taliban calling card, telling Afghan forces, ‘We’re coming, we’re still a viable threat to the Afghan government, and we can hit anywhere.’”

But Mr. O’Hanlon noted that attacks such as Tuesday’s strike are “hard to prevent reliably.”

“I would not hold this too sternly against the ANSF,” he said.

Military aid

Despite reports of dangerously high attrition rates in Afghan security forces, Secretary of State John F. Kerry sought to cast a positive light on the Afghan forces during a visit to Kabul earlier this month.

A State Department fact sheet listed a range of American military equipment that has recently been integrated into the ANSF, including 14 MD-530 attack helicopters and eight A-29 attack aircraft. The department said an additional 14 MD-530s, to be delivered during the coming three months, “will further enhance the operational capabilities of the Afghan Air Force.”

On a separate front, Tuesday’s strike represented a new blow to a peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government — something the Obama administration and regional powers such as Pakistan and China have been trying to bring about for years.

Analysts say the Taliban, rebounding from a transition battle with the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar in 2013, have stepped up its battle tempo in the part year. Last September, Taliban forces overran the provincial capital of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, holding it for several days until Afghan ground forces and NATO fighters took back the city. It was the first major Afghan city to fall to the Taliban since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

In early April Gen. Nicholson suggested during an interview with Reuters that a renewed alliance between the Taliban and resurgent al Qaeda terrorist cells in Afghanistan could delay the Obama administration’s plan for drawing down the remaining U.S. forces in the nation. The four-star general, who took up the top NATO post in Afghanistan earlier this year, is expected to provide his recommendations for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to the White House and Congress this summer.

Efforts by Islamic State to gain a foothold in eastern Afghanistan could also force Washington to keep a U.S. military presence in the country, although U.S. commanders have recently claimed that the group’s presence in the nation has been reduced by targeted American airstrikes.

While American and NATO forces have officially been in a noncombat role in Afghanistan since December 2014, U.S. warplanes have been conducting routine airstrikes against suspected Islamic State targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Early this year, Gen. John Campbell, the former head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recommended to the White House that Western forces resume regular airstrikes against the Taliban and other extremist groups.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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