Afghan authorities are investigating why Taliban militants were able to push past checkpoints in the central city of Tarin Kot with such ease during a recent attack that exposed the fragile defenses of many remote regions.
The Sept. 8 raid on the capital of Uruzgan province briefly sparked fears of a collapse like that in the northern city of Kunduz last year, a short yet symbolic victory for an Islamist insurgency that shows few signs of weakening.
The Tarin Kot advance was eventually repelled when reinforcements, backed by U.S. airstrikes, arrived, but not before local officials had fled to the airport in fear.
“Police left around a hundred checkpoints without even firing a bullet, and we have to clear up why this happened,” said Dost Mohammad Nayab, a spokesman for the Uruzgan governor.
Heavy fighting continues along the highway linking Tarin Kot with Kandahar in the south, a vulnerable route that in parts is no more than a dirt road that heavy vehicles struggle to pass.
Bitter recriminations have broken out between officials since the attack. Such squabbling is not limited to Uruzgan and often hampers security forces’ effectiveness, even if capabilities are improving steadily in many areas.
Events in Uruzgan, a patchwork of competing tribal groups that lies on a smuggling route bordering the volatile opium-producing region of Helmand, also highlight Kabul’s often tenuous control outside the capital.
QUESTIONS OVER BATTLE
Western officials and some Afghan commanders say only a small number of Taliban fighters, many moving swiftly on motorcycles, appear to have been involved in the assault, suggesting minimal resistance was offered.
Taliban fighters warned police to abandon checkpoints and sent text messages to residents, prompting local shopkeepers to pile belongings into cars and flee. Large quantities of ammunition and equipment were abandoned.
U.S. officials said surveillance drones picked up no signs of significant combat activity and nothing to support media reports and social media postings that hundreds of gunmen had broken through into the city.
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul said they were “aware of recent allegations regarding checkpoints in Tarin Kot”, but referred questions to Afghan authorities.
Shortly before a conference in Brussels where international donors are expected to maintain support for Afghanistan for four more years, the Uruzgan raid paints a bleak picture of armed forces who control no more than two thirds of national territory.
“DEALS WITH THE ENEMY”
The insurgents were quickly pushed back with the aid of U.S. air strikes after the arrival of reinforcements led by General Abdul Razeq, a powerful police commander from the neighboring province of Kandahar known as a ruthless enemy of the Taliban.
Further reinforcements were brought in, including units from Kandahar and police special forces from Herat.
Tarin Kot’s own performance is under close scrutiny.
“Some of them (police) made deals with the enemy and brought them into Tarin Kot. They are still in their jobs because we could not prove their responsibility,” provincial governor Haji Nazir Kharotai told a delegation of Western ambassadors and U.S. generals who visited Tarin Kot last month.
The province’s chief of police Wais Samimi and provincial security chief Abdul Qawi have been summoned to Kabul and sacked, and further investigations will follow.
“This is not over,” spokesman Nayab said.
Whatever investigations may show – and opinions in Uruzgan differ sharply over who is to blame – fragmented command contributed to the problem, local leaders said.
“There was no coordination between police forces,” said Amanullah Hottaki, an elder in Uruzgan and former head of the provincial council. “If they don’t learn from their mistakes, the Taliban will attack again and win,” he said.
The problem partly reflects the complicated makeup of Uruzgan, a rugged province where Dutch, Australian and U.S. forces spent years trying to create a stable government.