After Kabul attack, a fight for the narrative
September 14th, 2011
06:19 PM ET

After Kabul attack, a fight for the narrative

By Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy

Six insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles attacked the heart of the U.S. presence in Kabul, Afghanistan. They fired grenades into the grounds of the U.S. embassy, killed three Afghans and injured 21 others over a 20-hour period.

The six men held off a counter-attack by U.S., NATO and Afghan soldiers and helicopter gunships for 20 hours before being killed.

How did the U.S. government characterize this attack? "Harassment," said the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. "Far from spectacular," said the top spokesman in the Pentagon.

At the same time, U.S. and NATO officials pointed to the reaction by Afghanistan security forces to fight back. Early on, the Twitter feed from the International Security Assistance Force media relations team had comments from the secretary general of NATO that he was "confident Afghan authorities can deal with the situation."

"Once again, I was impressed by the courage, skill and fighting spirit of Afghan forces. The insurgency has again failed," said Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, in a statement.

If you figure the six insurgents were aiming to seize or destroy the U.S. Embassy and ISAF headquarters, it was a major failure, the Pentagon spokesman said. No U.S. or coalition personnel were killed and no walls were even breached.

"They were defeated and roundly defeated at the end of the day," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said. "It was far from spectacular."

Ambassador Ryan Crocker said it wasn't even an attack. "They were firing from at least 800 meters (half-mile) away and with an RPG, that's harassment. That's not an attack."

But for all the downplaying by U.S. and NATO officials, military analysts CNN spoke to said the Taliban did succeed in gaining attention, even if ultimately the action was stopped.

"Operationally and strategically it's not a big deal. But tactically the operation certainly was a success. I mean, it garnered international headlines," said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "It was just days after 9/11. And it demonstrates that even though insurgents aren't capable of taking over Kabul, the ability of them to project an attack like that into the city and have one carry out for 20 hours is certainly significant."

James Carafano, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said, "From a propaganda standpoint, you can't help but believe that what they are trying to do is to build up the narrative that Obama declares we're leaving and they get these attacks out there to say 'we're pushing Americans out the door.' "

Anthony Cordesman, the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees the situation from a similar standpoint. "Regardless of whether the attacks achieve the strategic result, the attacks in Kabul and Kandahar and elsewhere have a very major media effect.The polls show a declining support for the United States."

U.S. and NATO officials have tried hard for two days to paint this as a success for the Afghan security forces, the troops and police officers who the U.S. is training to replace the U.S. troops who are now being drawn down.

"You have to acknowledge the strong response from Afghan National Security Forces and others," Little said. Crocker echoed that point: "Afghans should be proud of what their security forces did yesterday."

The public affairs officers behind the ISAF Twitter feed seemed keenly aware the fight was over publicity as much as a battle in the streets. Over the last two days it has sent out taunting messages to the Taliban, fighting the impression the Taliban had the upper hand.

As the fighting continued, one tweet argued "initial reaction time" and "not harming civilians" was what mattered, not how long the engagement with insurgents lasted. Another tweet, after the fighting subsided on Wednesday, directed at a Twitter feed believed to be from the Taliban, taunted, "does your boss do this" with a link to video of Gen. Allen visiting troops after the attack.

If the Taliban were looking for a propaganda victory, does that mean the attacks were a success for them? Ambassador Crocker himself brought up a classic example of an enemy getting a huge propaganda victory out of a battlefield failure.

"A half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away; that isn't Tet," Crocker said Wednesday in Kabul. "Tet" refers to the military offensive staged by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in 1968. By attacking around South Vietnam on the most important holiday in that culture, the enemy hoped to secure a surprise victory and end the war.

The attacks ultimately failed, but the magnitude of the attacks helped sway public opinion in the U.S. against the war. Two months after the Tet Offensive was launched, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election.

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Filed under: Afghanistan • ISAF • Kabul • Military • NATO
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