Striking at Kabul, in 2013: the attack on the traffic police HQ

Just before dawn, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) premises on the Deh Mazang roundabout in West Kabul came under attack. After a massive car bomb detonated in front of the building, an insurgent commando of five men tried to enter the traffic police headquarters. Two of them eventually made their way inside, and holed themselves in for eight hours. They were, as it is usually the case in such occasions, well furnished with weapons, including rockets and suicide vests. The siege ended around 3 pm when the last insurgent was gunned down by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Policemen and passers-by were among the casualties. In a reprise of a piece previously published by AAN a year ago, Fabrizio Foschini looks at how today’s attack fits into current patterns of insurgent warfare and how Kabul’s security compares now with the days of Najibullah’s presidency, as security forces then fought off attacks by the mujahedin.
[Deh Mazang roundabout from above - photo by Fabrizio Foschini]

The standoff in Deh Mazang fits in a long chain of similar attacks. The same ANSF premises in Deh Mazang have been targeted by suicide bombers before, during the complex attack of 13 September 2011, one of the most ambitious staged by the insurgency in Kabul to the date (read AAN blog here).

Deh Mazang roundabout is certainly a strategic hub to strike at: joining West Kabul to the centre, by blocking it one can manage to halt movement in the whole city – the volume of Kabul traffic will do the rest. It may also be a relatively easy target because of its position, accessible on many sides, with relatively little security compared to other, more secluded and militarised areas with ANSF installations. The presence of insurgent informers able to endow the attackers with previous information about the details of the ANSF compounds is also not to be excluded in this crowded and popular neighbourhood. Altogether, a before-dawn targeting of the very much civilian traffic police – of all possible opponents in Kabul – seems a very low-profile operation.  Indeed, the Taleban claimed their original objective was the adjoining Border police offices. Opportunistic switching of targets has happened before. In Khost, in May 2011, the Taleban did try to storm the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) station and after failing took on the lightly armed traffic police.

Today’s attack may possibly be a hasty follow-up to the failed attempt – on 16 January – to enter the NDS facility near Sedarat roundabout in downtown Shahr-e Naw, where the explosion of the first explosive-laden car, there too meant as a door-opener for comrades following on behind, actually killed most of the occupants of the second car. Survivors were then finished off by the defenders.

These attacks seem to be an upgrade of the tactic, prominent through 2011-1012, of occupying buildings under construction and holding them for long standoffs. This bringing of the insurgents’ sangar, the trenches, inside the cities (Kabul has not been the only target of such attacks, see AAN previous blog) has had some backlashes in terms of the public perception - when civilian are randomly killed and injured and the ANSF inevitably fits the role of the saviours, eliminating the terrorists and re-establishing normality (see AAN previous blog). Focusing on storming the premises of security forces – and possibly other government offices too – could be the insurgents’ choice for trying to reverse the situation, and showing how it is them pursuing an aggressive chase of the government forces. The latter would also, arguably, constitute more conventional targets than hotels or other public spaces frequented by civilians, and thus lend back some legitimacy to this type of attacks. This also fit with the changed trend in the insurgents’ prioritisation of their targets, away from the western troops and increasingly taking on the Afghan forces (not something entirely new, as ANSF casualty statistics shows). This surely aims at putting more and more stress on the ANSF – all of them, army, police and intelligence – at a moment when their morale, efficiency and future perspectives are widely considered to be the single major factor behind the stability of Afghanistan post-2014.

AAN thought it worth to re-present a blog which was published exactly one year ago, in which, without pushing any historical comparison beyond the limited focus of this analysis, Fabrizio Foschini compared the challenges that the PDPA government faced during the 1980s, when protecting Kabul from mujahedin attacks, and the present situation.

- - - - - -

Kabul is one of the cities which by global comparison has suffered one of the most complete experiences of warfare. In between the glossy facades of new buildings, old walls bearing the signature of past conflicts hint at how, between 1992 and 1996, one of the Afghan government’s major occupations was internecine fighting for control of the capital. It was a government where the prime minister used to shell city neighbourhoods held by the president and the minister of defence, who in turn rocketed back – all heedless of civilian losses. The mujahedin government cannot be compared to the current one because, imperfect as today’s institutions are, they do actually resemble those of a functioning state.

Looking for a historical comparison, the most obvious comparison is with the PDPA regime, which had a firm hold over Kabul until it finally lost power. Partly because Kabul was a smaller and more socially homogenous city at that time, partly because of a more marked strategic focus by the government on the defence of urban centres, the communist government was able to guarantee better security to Kabul residents than any of its successors. At least, that is what many people in Kabul say, referring especially to the second part of communist rule, broadly speaking Najibullah’s tenure between 1986 and 1992. The early years of the PDPA period were characterised by a bloody repression, carried out against both urban and rural citizen. Note, Kabul was also fairly secure during the Taleban years, if we also do not consider insecurity caused by the government’s treatment of its citizens.

Kabul has changed dramatically over the years. With its growing population and geographic reach, today’s city, with its five million inhabitants bears little resemblance to the 800,000 strong city of the 1980s. Today it is almost uncommon to meet a ‘certified Kabuli’ among the massive waves of new settlers. Even though many of Kabul’s original citizens – especially aristocrats and other elites – fled in the 1980s and made room for an influx of refugees from the countryside, the changes were manageable. Yet, today’s ‘new Kabulis’ face problems similar to earlier generations’. Their day-to-day existence - work, school and free time - is threatened by an armed insurgency which views Kabul with the same strategic and symbolic value and is willing and able to strike inside the city.

All through the 1980s, the mujahedin strove to penetrate Kabul defences to inflict damage on the PDPA institutions and their Soviet backers. The city was then defended by a mixed garrison of Soviet and Afghan troops, with the former playing a particularly relevant role in the early 1980s when the Afghan Army had still to recover from the protracted struggles between Khalqis and Parchamis and the Soviet intervention. Kabul was surrounded by three security rings, the outermost of which ran outside the city almost in the countryside. In the second half of the 1980s a force of around 20,000 to 30,000 troops was constantly employed in manning these security cordons, while at least 15,000 policemen and other units of the Ministry of Interior were deputed to guarantee security inside the city. A further number of intelligence agents and combat groups belonging to the KhAD, estimated at several thousands, were deployed to deal with the underground network of mujahedin supporters.

Nowadays, Kabul features a less ‘centralised’ defensive set up. There are checkpoints where the major communication axes enter the city, of course, but at an inner level, the only pervasive security arrangement is the so-called Ring of Steel, a series of police positions deployed to scrutinize vehicles accessing central areas of the city. The Ring of Steel was put in place in 2009 by then interior minister, Hanif Atmar, who as a youth must have had occasion to witness the effectiveness of the security cordons under Dr. Najibullah’s rule. Only for special occasions (commemorations, elections, VIP gatherings) is the presence of security forces out in the streets raised to a considerable extent.

In fact, the security of ‘important’ or powerful Kabul residents, both Afghans and foreigners, has been to a greater extent ‘privatised’. The transformation of the urban landscape is evident to everybody, Hesco walls and private security companies’ guards being the most tangible proof of it. The massive presence of international organisations and diplomatic seats, and their concentration in certain areas of the capital, has created restricted access areas which a few describes as Kabul’s ‘Green Zone’. Actually, these does not constitute a significant portion of the city in terms of expanse, but because of their strategic location virtually cut the capital in two (a feat which the mountain ridge separating Kabul West from the centre had already been perfectly able to carry out by itself), and render traffic circulation painfully slow.

Despite a more permanent and massive display of security under the PDPA, the mujahedin were often able to enter the city and carry out attacks there. Some groups eventually specialised in operations inside the city. They were mainly based in the surrounding districts, especially to the south and west of Kabul, often no more than ten kilometres away. Shewaki area hosted different fronts, the most famous being that led by Abdul Haq of Hezb-e Islami Khales. Other groups belonging to Hezb-e Islami, Mahaz-e Melli and Mohseni’s Harakat-e Islami had their hideouts in Morghiran, west of Darulaman or in Chahar Asiab. While many groups, including Jamiat-e Islami, maintained a network of spies and informants inside Kabul, these urban guerrilla commandos were living in the countryside and moving into the city only for their operations. They also had shelters in between the security cordons, but these were not so secure and could be raided by the security forces.*

The major difference with insurgents nowadays is that the permanent bases of the mujahedin, although relatively close to the city, were reasonably safe from government security forces, which then were then rather static. Thus mujahedin could hope to elude security forces after a particular operations, get through the security rings, and reach the relative safety of their bases.** Differences in the military technologies and approaches on the part of the Afghan security forces and ISAF now force the insurgents into more secretive behaviour and prevent their establishing permanent bases at least in the immediate surroundings of the city. The closer armed insurgent fronts survive in the more rugged terrain of adjacent provinces, in Wardak, Kapisa and Logar (and recently in Parwan), or in more removed parts of Kabul province like Sarobi.

The Haqqani Network has been connected to many of the major high-profile operations inside the capital since their dramatic increase in 2008. This would not make sense, as Haqqani fighters are coming mainly from Loya Paktia and Waziristan and are not the best positioned, in terms of knowledge of the capital or ability to move through it stealthily. However, they are better off in terms of resources such as suicide bombers, trained commandos and massive amounts of explosives and money than the closer-by, but more traditional, Taleban fronts active in Logar, Wardak or Kapisa. Of course, the Haqqani commandos bent on attacking the city must rely to a very large extent on local facilitators for logistic, transport and guidance. These facilitators seem to reside mainly in neighbouring districts bordering on Kabul suburbs like Deh Sabz and Musayi, but have at their disposal store-houses and hideouts closer to the city centre, and extensive links to non-political criminal networks.***

How effective are insurgents’ attacks inside the capital compared to the past? Until now, the Taleban have not focussed all their resources on attacks in the capital and, apart from sporadic rocket attacks on the city, a tactic that the Taleban borrowed from the mujahedin, their major focus has been to strike as close as possible to the heart of power, whatever the target and whatever the civilian casualties might be. Their preference, therefore, has been to launch sporadic, high-profile attacks which create the perception of instability and of a vulnerable city.

Reasonably good intelligence on troop movements has allowed insurgents to target military convoys, relatively successfully, usually using vehicle-borne suicide bombs, especially on major routes like the airport road, Jalalabad and Darulaman roads. They have also, and this since a very early stage in the conflict, been able to gather valuable intelligence as to the movements of government officials (although some major successes, like the killing of senior adviser to the president, Jan Mohammad Khan, in his house the 17 July 2011, can be put down rather to inadequate security arrangements). The relatively weak commitment of state cadres and the murky relations of some with the insurgency have helped with intelligence gathering. Still, the phenomenon is less organised and consistent than the full-time ‘moles’ that some mujahedin factions managed to plant inside the PDPA regime. During that period, several high-ranking officers, including a brigadier general and a colonel, were imprisoned and some were executed for alleged links with the mujahedin.

Connivance inside the Afghan armed forces of today appears limited to the lower levels and to be more opportunistic.**** The drive to pump up the number of the ANSF has led to some carelessness in recruitment and undoubtedly allowed individuals with links to the insurgents to infiltrate. Even so, fratricidal attacks (of Afghan soldier/police against his fellow) appear more often caused by personal antagonism than ideology, and to happen mainly in the provinces and to target foreign troops or trainers. However, the use of military uniform as disguise to allow an insurgent to approach targets is more commonly seen in the capital. Such a ruse has enabled both single attackers and commando groups to attack targets such as the military airport and police stations.*****

However, compare all this to the mujahedin’s urban guerrilla warfare where there was a much more systematic targeting of low profile targets such as police and army checkpoints, barracks and individuals. Night attacks on army posts then could involve as many as 60-100 fighters, while the possibility to quickly withdraw to safe bases outside the city meant that abductions of military personnel, government officials or even Soviet advisors, was a much sought-after tactic by the mujahedin. In contrast, the Taleban seem little concerned about hitting half-hearted government employees in Kabul. Their motivation, however, appears not to be concern about hurting the relatively powerless, but reserving their fighters for high visibility targets in the nation’s capital.

* For example, as reported in ‘The Other Side of the Mountain’ by Ahmad Ali Jalali and Lester Grau, Pashto-speaking mujahedin could hide with co-operative Kuchis settled inside the perimeter of the outermost security cordon, while Dari speakers would pass themselves off as buyers of dairy products visiting the Kuchis’ camps. Interestingly, the Tarakhel and Pul-e Charki suburbs, where many Kuchis live, are today considered even now important liaison points for insurgents to stage attacks inside the city, although more because of the presence of criminal networks.

** A major problem for the mujahedin seems to have been the difficulty of finding veteran urban guerrillas, given the heavy losses they incurred. This problem has been solved for good by the new approach the insurgents imported from Arabistan, namely that nobody is expected to survive the operation he engages in.

*** Normal criminality, although still relatively low for a city of this size and with such economic and social problems, has increased. In particular kidnappings, mainly aimed at well-off Afghan families, have reached alarming highs. It is not a completely apolitical business, as many gangs enjoy political protection inside the security forces. The insurgents did not join the kidnapping business in Kabul as they did in other cities or in the rural areas, but are able to hire parts of the city underworld for logistic support for their operations.

**** In one case, an Afghan soldier was arrested in relation to the suicide attack that struck Sardar Daud Khan military hospital in Wazir Akbar Khan on 21 May 2011. Apparently he had given the attacker a military uniform and helped him through the entrance checkpoint. His complicity seems to have been motivated by economic reward and by his belonging to the same community of a late Taleban commander from Shakardara (five other youths from the family have been jailed in this connection). The alleged main organizer of the attack, a nephew of the same commander who came from Pakistan with the attacker, would have exploited the occasion to prey on a family connection inside the army who also faced a desperate economic and social situation.

***** The tactic was already used by the mujahedin, who also benefited from a black market of weapons and uniforms created by the demoralisation of Afghan and Soviet troops. Now, at least, ISAF soldiers are not selling weapons to the Taleban, even though one could say that in a more indirect way, the insurgents are receiving major economic boosts from the presence of the foreign troops, in the form of their share of protection money exacted by private security company on convoys.