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What do Kabul attacks signal in the fight for Afghanistan's future?

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
An Afghan security officer stands at the site where insurgents launched attacks Wednesday.
An Afghan security officer stands at the site where insurgents launched attacks Wednesday.
  • An attack by militants on high-profile targets in Kabul seizes headlines
  • It follows other high-visibility but low-casualty attacks on foreign targets
  • Some analysts say such attacks show the Taliban are weakened
  • Others say they indicate that NATO's efforts to kill Taliban commanders have done little

(CNN) -- After a 20-hour battle, a Taliban assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO command center in central Kabul was brought to a bloody end Wednesday with the deaths of half a dozen militants.

But while the targets were high-profile and media coverage was extensive, the casualties inflicted on the Taliban's stated targets were relatively small. Four police officers and two civilians were killed and 27 injured in that assault and a handful of other incidents across Kabul, according to Afghan government figures.

Analysts are now questioning whether this attack, alongside another on units of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Wardak province over the weekend and a deadly assault on the British Council last month, signals a shift in strategy by the Taliban and what the significance of that might be.

The fight in Afghanistan has been going on for almost a decade, since the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban because its leaders gave sanctuary to September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and his followers. But an important part of the battle is being played out in the field of public perception, with the Taliban seeking to win the information war as the conflict grinds on.

From the Taliban's point of view, staging such an attack in the heart of what is said to be the nation's most secure city is bound to strike fear into a population that NATO has yet to win over, particularly in terms of recruitment within the country's fledgling security apparatus.

And a Taliban statement posted online while the fighting was under way struck a triumphal tone, saying the assault was resulting in "foreign invaders and local puppets sustaining fatal losses and severe damages."

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker gave a rather different take in Kabul on Wednesday, characterizing the incident as "harassment fire" that barely merited attention.

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"This really is not a very big deal, a hard day for the Embassy and my staff, who behaved with enormous courage and dedication, but look, you know, a half a dozen (rocket-propelled grenade) rounds from 800 meters away, that isn't Tet, that's harassment," he said, referring to a major offensive by Hanoi in the Vietnam War.

"If that's the best they can do, you know, I think it's actually a statement of their weakness and, more importantly, since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security, it's a real credit to the Afghan National Security Forces. They are the ones that took down the building and took down those attackers."

A fight for the narrative

He laid responsibility for the Kabul and Wardak attacks at the door of the Haqqani network, a pro-Taliban militant group based in Pakistan's North Waziristan region.

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Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, also cautioned against reading too much into a "splashy" attack by militants keen to grab the headlines.

He likened the insurgency to a ladder and believes that the fact the Taliban are now carrying out such high-visibility "assassination attacks" indicates that they are a couple of rungs lower down than they were before 2009, after NATO's efforts to take out many mid- and senior-level commanders.

This means that, unlikely though this may seem to anyone caught up in them, Tuesday's attacks can be read as a good sign, he said.

Whereas previously the Taliban were in a position to control large areas of population, now they have to resort to sending in militants on missions leading to almost certain death, and with limited success in military terms.

"There's a certain tendency in the coverage of unusual, splashy attacks like this one to assume that it means things are getting worse. It doesn't necessarily mean that," he said.

"It's damaging, destructive and unhelpful, but the reason the Taliban weren't doing this kind of thing two years ago was that they didn't have to; they were able to do better than that. They could control places."

It's not all good news for the Afghan government and NATO-led forces, though, Biddle pointed out. The Taliban could still ascend the ladder again, especially if poor governance results in a continuing level of support for the insurgency from Afghans victimized by corrupt local officials, who see nowhere else to turn.

Observers agree that one of the effects of the ongoing violence is that many Afghans are very skeptical of the ability of the national government, led by Hamid Karzai, to run things effectively or protect them.

They also remember well that Western support for Afghanistan dried up after the Soviets left just over 20 years ago -- and foresee the same thing happening again, as the political appetite for the current war wanes among the United States and its allies.

NATO has already begun the process of drawing down and handing over security control to national forces, with Kabul one of several areas handed over to Afghan forces in the past few months. About 10,000 U.S. troops are due to leave Afghanistan by year's end, and all U.S. military personnel are to be out by the end of 2014.

The militants who attacked the ISAF headquarters in Kabul never thought they could overrun it, Biddle said. "What they were trying to do is scare people, and the fact that people are worried about what transition is going to mean makes it easier to scare them."

Gran Hewad, a political researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said from Kabul that Tuesday's attack had indeed made people nervous -- especially because it lasted 20 hours, twice as long as the previous longest such incident.

Its impact was heightened by the fact the attack was in a central part of the city where government ministries, embassy buildings and security force bases are located, and where many people live, he said.

"People were more affected than in the other (previous) incidents in the city," he said. "Other attacks were out of the residential areas and in less important areas."

Whereas militants previously infiltrated Afghan security forces or staged attacks inside military and police training camps, they now appear to be directing attacks at foreign civilian and military targets in cities, he said, in a bid to terrorize the wider Afghan and international public.

And while NATO-led operations against the Taliban have had an impact, he warned, the attacks will continue so long as militants are recruited, trained and armed over the border in Pakistan.

At the same time, people in Kabul have little confidence in the ability of the security forces and police to protect the people against attackers who are becoming increasingly sophisticated, thanks to their training over the border, Hewad said.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agreed with Crocker's assessment that the militants involved in attacks in Kabul and Wardak were probably from the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan.

She also highlighted the much better performance of the Afghan security forces faced with this incident than in previous attacks, such as the mob attack in April on a United Nations building in Mazar-e Sharif where 12 people died. Still, in her view, local police and militia forces remain "extremely problematic."

Her reading on the latest attacks is that the Taliban have learned that they do not need to mount big offensives involving hundreds or thousands of fighters, as they did in the mid-2000s, to make an impact and reveal the vulnerability of security gains.

The recent uptick in violence could be the Taliban seeking to put themselves in as strong a position as possible for any future negotiations with the Afghan government and the international community, Felbab-Brown said, although such talks are far from certain.

On the other hand, the violence could be part of the Taliban's long-term strategy to outlast the West. The more the group believes that time is on its side -- unlike NATO, it has no scheduled end-date for its efforts -- the more it can simply drag out the conflict with no need to make a deal, she said.

In that scenario, the best the NATO-led forces could do would be to seek to minimize the damage done in assassination-style attacks, improve their intelligence capacity in central Afghanistan and bolster the Afghan army so it won't fall apart when it takes over in 2014.

David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, offers a more pessimistic view.

The attacks are intended to send a political message, he said, and that message is that the Taliban are still strong, present and able to outlast and out-fight the international forces.

"The whole success of a counterinsurgency operation depends on politics," he said. "Ultimately, you cannot win these things through just killing people and military operations. There needs to be some kind of political message people will rely on and support."

Each time the Taliban inflict more damage on Afghan and international forces, they hope to wear down the military will of those forces, he said, and stake their claim to a favorable settlement when they eventually leave.

And Cortright sees the militants as "at least as strong, if not stronger, than they were last year or five years ago."

He adds: "The prospects are not good for the international forces or the Karzai government."

CNN's Matiullah Mati, David Ariosto, Suzanne Malveaux and Elise Labott contributed to this report.