Suicide gunmen and bombers believed to be from a Pakistan-based terror network simultaneously attacked three Afghan government buildings in the capital, killing at least 20 people and wounding nearly 60 in a highly organized and sophisticated operation that demonstrated the precarious security situation there just a day ahead of the visit by new U.S. special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke.
Holbrooke, whose portfolio encompasses both Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived at the U.S. military base at Bagram just north of Kabul Thursday and met with U.S. military commander Gen. David McKiernan and U.S. Ambassador William Wood, a State Department official told United Press International. He was expected to travel to Kabul Thursday for meetings with Afghan officials.
Security in the capital remained tight ahead of his visit, after a statement of responsibility from the leadership of the Taliban insurgency appeared to imply that another eight attackers might still be at large.
Five attackers armed with explosives and automatic weapons struck the Ministry of Justice headquarters, taking over the building for more than an hour as panicked employees cowered in their offices. Two others struck at the Education Ministry, and an eighth attacked the headquarters of the national prison service. All were killed during the attacks, either by their own explosives or by Afghan security forces.
But a statement Wednesday from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban style themselves, said 16 "martyrs" were involved in the operation.
A U.S. counter-terrorism official told UPI, "There are strong indications that terrorists associated with the (Jalaluddin) Haqqani network planned and carried out" the attack.
The network -- based near Miranshah in North Waziristan, one of Pakistan's seven semiautonomous tribal areas -- was the target of several strikes last spring by U.S. Predator drones and has taken an increasingly prominent role in the Taliban insurgency. There have been repeated rumors that its leader, a veteran of the 1980s U.S.-backed mujahedin campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, is sick or even dead, but in any case his son Sirajuddin, also known as Khalifa, is now thought to run the group's day-to-day activities.
The group was also implicated in a suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul last summer -- an operation in which U.S. officials have said members of Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency may have been implicated.
The immediate point of comparison for Wednesday's attack, according to one U.S. government analysis, was other "combined arms assaults against multiple targets," such as the summer 2008 Serena Hotel attack in Kabul and the Mumbai hotel attacks in November 2008.
But there is another, darker parallel too.
In October 2003 a rocket salvo struck the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad during a visit to the Iraqi capital by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. A U.S. colonel was killed in the attack, which injured 18 people, including a senior British civil servant. A shaken U.S. official who was there told UPI privately at the time that Wolfowitz was "lucky to be alive."
The attack -- against one of the most highly fortified and secure areas of the U.S.-occupied city -- shocked many Americans and proved to be a harbinger of the prolonged and bloody insurgency that followed.
Although Afghanistan has a long way to go before things there are as bad as they were in Iraq during 2004-5, the security situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
"What we have inherited," Holbrooke told the Munich Conference on Security Policy last weekend, according to a transcript provided by the State Department, "essentially is a situation with very grand rhetoric and inadequate and insufficient resources."
He said the new administration was seeking "attainable objectives and more resources," issues that would be addressed by the strategic review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy ordered by President Obama and co-chaired by State Department official Holbrooke; Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy; and Bruce Riedel of the White House National Security Council.
The absence of an overarching strategy in the region, according to former senior Afghan official Ashraf Ghani, and the "confusion between strategy, tactics and operations" are a "self-inflicted wound" for U.S. policy there.
"The net result of this," Ghani told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee this week, "is the loss of trust of the population."
Indeed. A new national public opinion survey in Afghanistan by ABC News, the British Broadcasting Corp. and German broadcaster ARD TV found that support for the Kabul government and its Western allies has plummeted from its peak, especially in the past year.
"Widespread strife, a resurgent Taliban, struggling development, soaring corruption and broad complaints about food, fuel, power and prices all play a role," says a statement from the pollsters.
The number of Afghans who say their country is headed in the right direction has dived from 77 percent in 2005 to 40 percent now.
Over the same period the proportion of Afghans expressing a favorable opinion of the United States plunged from 83 percent -- unheard of in a Muslim nation -- to just 47 percent, a fall of 36 points, with half of the drop occurring this year alone. For the first time ever slightly more Afghans now see the United States unfavorably than favorably.