September 17, 2011

Propaganda Battle Rages After Kabul Assault

From the moment seven Taliban gunmen stormed an unfinished building in Kabul and proceeded to fire upon the U.S. Embassy, the attack signified a pure information operation. Taking over the embassy or NATO headquarters was never the objective, and the killing of U.S. or Afghan soldiers fell into a secondary objective. The overriding mission was to shock and awe, undermine America’s security blanket and overall strategy, and sow distrust between the Afghan people and “their” government.

Afghan soldiers led the counter-assault (with NATO support) without taking casualties, but this development alone doesn’t “get Afghanistan’s story right.” Not when all of the Taliban’s goals were achieved with minimal costs.

Whether “Tet”-worthy or not, the massive propaganda fallout from the Taliban’s assault has generated enormous political shockwaves. At first U.S. and Afghan officials attributed responsibility to the Haqqani network, a particularly large branch of the Taliban, in order to reduce the group’s total impact. Rank-and-file Taliban could never pull of such a coordinated attack, the American public was told, as the group is too weak and unsophisticated. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confidently declared, "These kinds of sporadic attacks and assassination attempts are more a reflection of the fact that they are losing their ability to be able to attack our forces on a broader scale.”

Never-mind that isolating the Taliban’s branches underestimates the group’s total strength and resiliency.

Once this angle was covered, U.S. officials switched to condemning Pakistan in order to further reduce the blame on America’s strategy in Afghanistan. Ambassador Cameron Munter recently told Radio Pakistan, "The attack that took place in Kabul a few days ago, that was the work of the Haqqani Network. And the facts, that we have said in the past, [is] that there are problems, there is evidence linking the Haqqani network to the Pakistan government. This is something that must stop."

Kabul’s attack could ultimately levy more damage on U.S.-Pakistani relations than any other sphere of influence. Not that relations have improved since Osama bin Laden’s raid, but Abbottabad proved that Washington and Islamabad still have plenty of room to fall. The Pakistani government hasn’t taken any of the U.S. counter-offensive lying down, responding to each volley with increasing agitation.

Speaking on Wednesday in San Francisco, Panetta told reporters, "Time and again we've urged the Pakistanis to exercise their influence over these kinds of attacks from the Haqqanis and we've made very little progress in that area. I'm not going to talk about how we're going to respond. I'll just let you know that we're not going to allow these kinds of attacks to go on.”

A spokeswoman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry initially rejected Panetta’s remarks as “out of line.” Chief General Ashfaq Kayani then hit back on multiple fronts, first qualifying that U.S.-Pakistani relations have improved since May. After challenging Panetta’s intent to act unilaterally, the general struck the lowest point he could by questioning Afghanistan's transition. "Frankly, I have my doubts," General Kayani told Reuters on the sidelines of a NATO Military Committee conference in Seville, Spain.

Most striking, however, was the reaction from Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani: “Pakistan has already contributed enormously in the fight against terrorism and extremism and now the United States should do more instead. Now it’s time they (US) should sacrifice like we did.”

The reality is that Washington and Islamabad both harbor legitimate grievances with each other, and neither is capable of altering their relationship. Both sides possess valid reasons to distrust the other - reasons that will likely exist after the last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan in 10-20 years. Even if Pakistan does support negotiations with the Taliban on Kabul’s terms, America’s general strategy is far from clear or inclusive. Washington simply expects Islamabad to accept that it understands the region, and to follow in relative darkness. One common feeling is that Washington refuses to sincerely negotiate with the Taliban, yet it expects Islamabad to launch large-scale campaigns in North Waziristan and Kurram, which would further destabilize an already unstable area.

"They (Americans) should not dump their failures on this side of the border always,” said another senior Pakistani military official. "The militants are not only going from this side of the border, they have their presence and support groups inside Afghanistan and such attacks are being planned and coordinated by those groups."

Yet Kabul’s assault has produced one unexpected reaction. As if ordered to absorb Pakistan's pressure, Sirajuddin Haqqani surfaced to refute all U.S. claims against his network. When asked if the group was responsible for the Kabul assault, Sirajuddin responded, "For some reasons, I would not like to claim that fighters of our group had carried out the recent attack on US embassy and NATO headquarters.”

This position is attributed to the Taliban’s national leadership - "our central leadership, particularly senior members of the shura [a consultative council], suggested I should keep quiet in the future if the US and its allies suffer” - but appears equally rooted in Islamabad’s command. Sirajuddin added, “Gone are the days when we were hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Now we consider ourselves more secure in Afghanistan besides the Afghan people. Senior military and police officials are with us.”

Such statements are calculated to further undermine Afghanistan's government, continuing the Taliban’s information assault long after its final gunman was killed. Sirajuddin’s “support” for “whatever solution our Shura members suggest” - meaning negotiations with Washington - is designed to send new shockwaves throughout Afghanistan’s political sphere. By opening the possibility to a negotiated settlement, the Taliban is pushing the blame of failed negotiations onto America, relieving its own pressure to reach a political resolution with Kabul.

After 20 months of blistering ground and air operations, the Taliban’s grand network has indeed weakened from its high-point in 2009-2010. Yet Iraq’s reduction in violence remains a distant hope, and to disregard the Taliban’s advanced information campaign is to ignore a vital piece of counterinsurgency. In downplaying both Kabul’s attack and its wider political effects, U.S. officials are weakening their own credibility with Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans alike - and fulfilling the Taliban’s objective in the process.

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