The large cracks in fortress Kabul
Arrive in Kabul and you know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic on its crumbling roads. Whole streets are blocked off by concertina wire and sandbags, while a zig-zag series of blast walls are designed to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber. Indeed, the walls seem to get higher and more neighbourhoods disappear behind this concrete curtain each time you go back. And yet insurgents have repeatedly breached the layer-upon-layer of security, as happened in September when the vast U.S. embassy compound came under attack, and now on Sunday when the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic district was again targeted along with parliament.
The one feature common to the multiple attacks on Sunday and the daring September operation was that the attackers sneaked into half-finished or empty buildings, took positions half-way up the building and were able to hold off an armada of helicopters and Special Operations forces for up to 20 hours. Kabul has been in the midst of a construction boom that has slowed only recently as the Western pullout looms in 2014. The result is that you have a number of these high rise buildings in the centre of town which offer vantage views of the city – especially the sealed-off parts where the diplomatic and political elite live in virtual bunkers, and which an ordinary Afghan can hardly ever see, much less gain access to. From the reports so far, the attackers didn’t have to do much to get into these lightly guarded blocks, many of them just empty shells. Once in, it was easy to hide behind a concrete pillar on a sixth-floor landing and fire rocket propelled grenades at the western installations below while holding off the choppers. The question is why are these buildings left unguarded even after the U.S. embassy was attacked from another one in the vicinity last September. What about the measures that were set in place to monitor such high-rises?
While the jury is still out on the implications of Sunday’s attacks (for some excellent analysis read this blogpost or this piece by the Afghanistan Analysts Network) there is a sloppiness to security which gives pause for thought.
You get the same gnawing worry at Kabul airport, supposed to be one of the most secure places in Afghanistan. You go through multiple checks, get out of your car several times to be patted down, take an airport bus to the terminal building, or walk carrying your bags through eerily empty grounds ringed by Afghan army and police. At one airport checkpoint during a visit last month, a soldier checking my pockets asked for “baksheesh”. I was surprised but pretended not to understand. He said it again and I continued to feign lack of understanding, sliding away as his face fell. But if the man could be bought off with baksheesh, what would have stopped me from smuggling through a knife or even a pistol?
You know money is changing hands if you watch carefully when a car stops at one of the checkpoints at the airport and the guard refuses to let it go through. An argument ensues and the driver steps out; they keep talking until the man embraces the guard in the Afghan form of greeting and neatly hands over a $10 bill so quickly that you scarcely notice. They keep talking loudly, the driver returns to the car and the gates are opened.
In short, the Afghan administration which is responsible for security in the capital has set up what was proudly called a Ring of Steel but which has obvious chinks in its armour which an adversary can easily exploit. For each corrupt security guard, there are at least five others who cannot be bought and that is perhaps why complex attacks like Sunday’s do not happen more often. And as was immediately clear on Sunday, Afghan forces fought back bravely and by all accounts , in a professional manner. Some amount of backup came from NATO, including strafing runs by helicopters on the buildings, despite an initial attempt to spin the whole operation as entirely Afghan. But overall the Afghan forces acquitted themselves well.
Their challenge, however, going forward is how to strengthen that Ring of Steel so you don’t get these kind of deep penetration attacks in the first place.