The past week’s attacks by the Taliban on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul may not yet have had a psychological impact on the United States, but it does cast doubt on the Obama administration’s claims of progress in the war. STRATFOR CEO Dr. George Friedman suggests the well-planned strike was aimed at improving the Taliban’s negotiating position.
Colin: In Agenda this week, just when U.S. coalition commanders and political leaders are assuring us they’re making solid progress in Afghanistan, the Taliban exposed the inability of security forces to protect prime targets in Kabul, like the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters. Eventually, their attackers quashed, but to what extent have the Taliban delivered a psychological blow to the United States and its allies?
Colin: Welcome to Agenda with George Friedman. George, the Taliban operation failed militarily but it has people thinking, hasn’t it?
George: Well, first, let’s define what happened. There was an attack on a complex of facilities, command and control facilities, in Afghanistan. The battle went on for 24 hours. It was demonstrated that the Taliban was able to penetrate the defenses and that it would take very long time for Western forces, allied forces, to root them out. Well, that may not have created a psychological effect, but it certainly has created a military effect. Because that means that security around these facilities, and really facilities all over Afghanistan, is going to be strengthened. And in doing that, that means that personnel will be diverted from counterinsurgency missions to other missions. So anytime you have a successful attack or an attack that makes the other side uncomfortable, there is a diversion of forces to the defensive, and that always benefits. But clearly, something important is going on politically in this. We know that discussions are going on between the Taliban, the Karzai government, the United States, and we know that because it’s been stated by senior leaders on all sides. In a negotiating situation of guerrilla war, we always refer back to Vietnam, which is a pretty good example. And in Vietnam, we have the example of, well two examples really, during the war against the French — the example of Dien Bien Phu, where the North Vietnamese, the Communists in that case, conducted an attack against a French outpost that was overrun, which created a psychological sense that the French could not possibly win. And then we think of the Tet Offensive in 1968 against the United States, which, although it turned into a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, it was a psychological blow against the United States because it essentially took the American narrative, which is that the North Vietnamese were weakening, that they were no longer able to mount an offensive against the United States, of that sort, and made it appear to be untrue. In the end they may have well weakening, but they could mount an offensive. And that drew into question the credibility of the Johnson administration and, not incidentally, had a serious effect on his decision not to run for president. The United States is now, again, in a presidential election. The Obama administration has been talking about how it has put the Taliban on the defensive, how it’s getting weaker and weaker, and the Taliban has mounted an attack which could show, depending on how you read it, that they are not only far from beaten, but have substantial capabilities. This is a very important story because, even though this may not directly have had an impact on the psychology of the United States, should the Taliban be able to mount multiple attacks of this sort, it would raise serious doubts about the Obama administration’s claims to having put them on the defensive and would also set the stage for an effective negotiating process from the Taliban point of view
Colin: But Dien Bien Phu and the Tet Offensive got heavy playing in global media. These attacks didn’t stay on the front pages for long at all.
George: Well I think, you know, it may have been, that the Taliban underestimated the extent to which the Western media has deteriorated since Vietnam so that these other stories were there. Fortunately, Michael Jackson didn’t die this week or it wouldn’t have been noticed it all. But, I think the point is Dien Bien Phu lasted for a very long time. The Tet Offensive also lasted for quite a while. This did not last for a very long time. We don’t know that this last offensive — not the beginning of multiple offenses, and we don’t know their other plans on attacking both there and other places. The fear of the United States ought to be that the Taliban begins assaulting the various outposts the United States has and begins taking prisoners. This became a very important factor for the North Vietnamese. I think the Taliban are looking at the North Vietnamese playbook carefully. I don’t know they’re able to do that, but I’m sure they would like that. So I think we should look at this as the first attempt and however long it takes the media to notice will depend on how many other events are taking place in the day, but, in due course, it is something that is going to undermine the credibility of the Obama administration’s claims on Afghanistan.
Colin: And particularly, the claim security could be handed over to the Karzai government?
George: I don’t think anybody’s claiming we can just leave it to the Afghans now. They are claiming that the trajectory is leading toward that. But the point I wanted to make, that is very important, is that this was not a minor target. This was a major target — it was a headquarters. It was in a very heavily guarded area. The Taliban clearly intended, and planned very carefully and devoted some very good troops to this operation because bad troops wouldn’t have succeeded in holding out as long as they did in penetrating the area. And I don’t think that the Taliban did this casually. I think they did this testing the waters to see whether this would have the impact they want. I strongly suspect they will be back for more and they will continue to act until he could no longer be ignored. Its sort of what Al Qaeda did. They first attacked the East African embassies, they then attacked the Cole. These were not responded to dramatically by the United States. They finally mounted an attack that even the media couldn’t ignore — that was 9/11 of course — and so I think we are now in in a situation where the Taliban is testing the waters.
Colin: Of course there are other actors in this, like Pakistan. I see American officials have blamed the Pakistani-based Haqqani group. They say they may have been responsible. What would Islamabad be thinking?
George: Well, I think Islamabad has been telling Washington, for a long time, that the the situation in Afghanistan is not under control, that their intelligence tells them that Taliban is quite robust and biding its time, and I think that the Pakistanis would vigorously deny any involvement in this at all. But remember, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is rather arbitrary. Their are people on both sides of the border who want the same thing, and I would not be surprised, given the fact the Taliban uses Pakistan as a sanctuary, that there are others who plan this attack with them. But this simply makes the situation that the Americans face, all the more difficult. Because if those American claims are true, then defeating the Taliban becomes that much more difficult. It also makes it more difficult to negotiate the kind of settlement the United States wants. And so, if the American charge is true, what the United States is really saying is that the war is in much more serious trouble, than we might think otherwise, because the planning is going on from Pakistan.
Colin: Now the Taliban have opened up a political office in Qatar, where U.S. Central Command is located, what do you think President Obama would try for a settlement before the election?
George: Well, according to what’s been said by the administration, they are attempting to negotiate with the Taliban right now. I think, either way you play it politically, it’s equally troubling for President Obama if he doesn’t have peace by the time the election, the charge can be made that he has an open-ended war, that he doubled-down on Bush’s policy, and be criticized by both sides of the spectrum. If he does make an agreement, it will be charged that he capitulated to the enemy. He’s going to have to live with it either way. The worst thing that could happen to him, is to be suffering a series of significant defeats with large and growing American casualties, Americans captured on the ground and things like that. That is the thing that he is going to have a great deal of difficulty with. Its not that he isn’t going to have difficulty no matter what he does, but that’s his worst-case scenario. He really, if there is a Taliban offensive under way, he really needs to shut it down fast for political reasons, as well as military.
Colin: George Friedman, thank you, and thank you for watching Agenda. Until next time, goodbye.