Qargha Lake siege undercuts U.S.-led narrative that Afghanistan war is on track
BY JON STEPHENSON, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS, QARGHA LAKE, Afghanistan — The handful of insurgents who launched an assault on a resort on Qargha Lake, west of Kabul, provided yet another deadly reminder Friday that security in Afghanistan is hardly as rosy as portrayed by U.S.-led coalition commanders and Pentagon officials in Washington.
The attack – in which insurgents stormed the peaceful resort frequented by Afghan families, leaving 18 Afghans dead including a police officer and several security guards – capped off a week of bloodshed that has seen a spate of audacious and well-planned attacks. With every episode of fresh violence, the story that the war is going well, or at least according to plan, seems to be unraveling.
It was the latest blow to the spin promoted by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan: that security here is improving, that Afghan forces are becoming self-sustaining and effective institutions and that a growing number of Taliban are giving up the fight as international forces prepare to withdraw.
Few Afghans believe any of this, and for good reason. More than two dozen Afghans were killed and dozens were wounded Wednesday in two insurgent attacks in eastern Afghanistan, including an attack in Khost province that also killed three coalition soldiers. Another two dozen people were killed in a spate of violence in southern Afghanistan in the two days before that. Four policemen and two civilians were killed Monday in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul.
On Friday, at least four insurgents stormed the Spozhmai restaurant, which lies between a cool lake and desolate mountains about a half-hour drive from the capital, shooting multiple patrons inside and outside the restaurant. The morning after the siege began, McClatchy reporters at the scene observed Norwegian special forces – trainers for the Crisis Response Unit, Afghan police commandos who supposedly had the lead in the operation – raiding the restaurant where the attackers were holed up, helping to bring an end to the fighting.
After the episode ended, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, who commands the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is formally known, released a statement praising the Afghan security forces, saying they “arrived quickly to secure the scene and liberate civilian hostages” while ISAF “provided minimal support.”
But the scenes of Norwegians storming the building amid heavy gunfire and explosions suggested that their role was far greater than “minimal.” Later, McClatchy reporters observed the Norwegian forces quietly removing from the scene rocket-launcher tubes that are used by NATO forces, not Afghans, a further sign that the international troops were heavily involved in the operation.
It is not the first time that ISAF has been caught understating the role played by its trainers, who work and often live alongside Afghan forces as part of a major push to improve the quality of Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces. Building an effective and reliable Afghan military is a centerpiece of ISAF’s exit strategy, and while there’s no doubt the quality of Afghan security forces has improved in recent years, many units are plagued by corruption, illiteracy, drug use, and at times questionable levels of competence.
Even elite units, like the police commandos – often praised by ISAF trainers for their courage, and widely regarded as one of the best units in the Afghan security forces – are still significantly below the “tier one” level of western special forces. Their ISAF trainers have had to step in and take the lead in several operations – for example, during last year’s insurgent attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel.