Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that Â carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Â to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.
The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province. Â NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control. Â It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities Â in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.
In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault. Â Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).
That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.
If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit. Â Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.
The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.