09.14.11

Exclusive: Taliban Boast of Kabul Embassy Attack

Behind the latest assault in the Afghan capital—Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the insurgents’ secret mobile war room and the group’s plans for future operations.

Ryan Crocker did his best to downplay the Afghan insurgents’ Sept. 13 attacks in the heart of Kabul. “This really is not a very big deal,” he told journalists after a band of gunmen hit the U.S. Embassy and the nearby NATO headquarters and then stood off Afghan security forces, backed by NATO and Afghan helicopters, in a 19-hour siege at an unfinished high-rise building in the neighborhood. As he told it, the Taliban were able only to harass the embassy with “half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away.” The fighters themselves never reached the embassy compound’s high, concertina-wire topped walls. “If that’s the best they can do,” he said, “I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness.”

Few of Kabul’s jittery residents would agree. Apparently in coordination with the embassy attack, suicide bombers struck targets around the city, and when it was all over, the dead included at least five Afghan police officers and 11 civilians—several of them children. (Six Coalition troops were wounded.) As if that weren’t enough to worry about, the people of Kabul remain shaken by other insurgent attacks in the past few months: the high-profile assault on Kabul’s Inter-Continental Hotel in June, the attack on a British cultural center in July, and the Sept. 11 truck bombing that wounded 77 Coalition soldiers at a U.S. base just east of Kabul. Most Afghans have little doubt that the Taliban are making serious inroads around and inside the capital.

And meanwhile the Taliban are delighted with the psychological impact they’ve made. “This attack satisfies our spirits and embarrasses our enemies,” a senior insurgent commander and member of the Taliban’s military council tells The Daily Beast. Declining to be named for security reasons, he adds: “The attack on the American Embassy shows we are in a position to attack where and when we please. We have support inside the city and an extensive underground network there.”

Tuesday’s assault on Kabul was an inside job, according to both the senior commander and a Taliban intelligence operative based in the capital. In fact, the commander says, all three of this year’s major strikes inside the city were organized by a single cell of fighters there. “The attacks on the hotel, the British Council and the embassy were the result of one small group who had arranged the planning from A to Z,” he says. The intelligence operative, who agreed to talk only if he was not named, confirms that the embassy raid was organized and coordinated by a team of insurgents operating out of a “war room” in the city. He says he recently visited the room as plans for the attack were being finalized. The operation had been on the drawing board for “a long time,” he says—and he claims to have seen a list of future targets being finalized. “Kabul will be attacked regularly,” he warns. “No place will be safe.”

The war room, as he describes it, is a mobile operations center that moves from house-to-house, depending on security concerns and the next intended target. The insurgents used a similar operations room for the attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel. After that operation, the Taliban’s commander for military operations inside Kabul, Qari Talha, told The Daily Beast that he and his aides kept in close radio and phone contact with the attackers as they rampaged through the hotel.

The operations center for Tuesday’s attack was the living room of a house in Kabul, according to the intelligence officer. It was a large room, he says, and well supplied with suicide vests, IEDs, an array of mobile phones, a fast Internet connection, and a number of laptop computers, along with detailed maps and drawings of the buildings, roads, and area around the embassy. And the place was staffed by more than a dozen insurgents, most of them technologically literate and well educated. “They were all communicating with fighters and organizers using safe communications and code words,” the intelligence officer says. “The way the group worked day and night was amazing. I have not seen such organization among the Taliban ever before.” But then, they don’t seem to have been run-of-the-mill Taliban. “Some of the operators were university students, and at least half of them were not Pashtuns but Tajiks,” the intelligence man says. That point seems particularly interesting: ethnic Tajiks tend to be violently opposed to the Taliban and are seldom found in their ranks.

“The way the group worked day and night was amazing,” the intelligence operative says. “I have not seen such organization among the Taliban ever before.” But then, they don’t seem to have been run-of-the-mill Taliban.

Crocker blamed the attack on the Haqqani Network—referring to the large and lethal insurgent organization that’s based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area. Although the group is allied with the Taliban, it’s generally viewed as distinct from them. But both the commander and the intelligence man take umbrage at Crocker’s allocation of responsibility for the operation. It was, both men say, a collaborative effort between the Haqqanis and the Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Quetta-based Taliban. “These attacks are not the job of the Haqqani network alone,” says the senior commander. “The Haqqanis—just like us—work under the order of Mullah Omar. Calling these acts the work of the Haqqanis only is Western media propaganda. We are all operating under the umbrella of Mullah Omar.”

The senior commander and the intelligence agent seem genuinely pleased by Tuesday’s attacks. “Seeing what we can do, my best advice to Kabulis would be to keep themselves far away from the enemies’ bases, which will continue to be targets of our attacks,” the senior commander says. The intelligence officer agrees: “As a result of our attacks, I think people are quickly losing any trust they may have had in Karzai or the U.S. to protect them. The people’s support is shifting away from Karzai and the U.S.” And the Taliban are hoping America will be deterred from keeping any forces in Afghanistan after the official pullout in 2014. “No U.S. troops will be safe after the withdrawal,” says the intelligence agent. “Look what we can do now. Imagine what we can do later.”

It would be easy to dismiss such boasts as being no more than Taliban propaganda. And yet the embassy attack can’t be dismissed, even if it did little more than grab headlines and further unnerve the people of Kabul. The insurgents have proved they can bring trained fighters, arms, and equipment into the capital. It’s true that the U.S. troop surge has inflicted serious damage on the Taliban in their southern heartland. But the insurgents have proved they are a force to be reckoned with—not only in rural villages, but in parts of Kabul that were supposed to be as secure as anywhere in the country.