A Taliban attack that claimed the lives of seven Central Intelligence Agency employees at their base in Khost might have been in retaliation for the targeted drone strikes killing militants, and highlights the risks facing US and allied troops in relying on Afghan security forces, analysts said yesterday. It was also a sign of the militants' widening reach and ability to co-ordinate complex and targeted attacks.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber struck inside Forward Operating Base Chapman, a heavily fortified American base in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan's North Waziristan, thought to be the current home of many al Qa'eda fugitives. The base chief was among those killed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was carried out by an Afghan army soldier.
"This deadly attack was carried out by a valorous Afghan army member," Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Reuters. The American base was used to provide vital, on-the-ground intelligence for drone strikes that assassinated militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "They are the ones that decide targeting policy," said Mustafa Alani, director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
The New York Times said the agency had been targeting members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of a former member of the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Haqqani, an ethnic Pashtun, is wanted by the US State Department for planning the January 14, 2008 attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people, and the April 2008 assassination attempt on the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
He is also accused of co-ordinating and participating in cross-border attacks against US and coalition forces from his base in Pakistan's lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The strike was likely a retaliation for the targeted killings, particularly since the Haqqanis control much of the territory surrounding Khost, where the CIA base is located. The Haqqani Network was identified as one of three main insurgent groups that pose a threat to US forces by Gen Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and American forces in Afghanistan, in his assessment of the overall security situation in the country. The report said that the Haqqanis were also working in part with the Quetta Shura, led by the head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar.
Control of Khost is one of their primary geographical objectives, according to the report. Mr Alani said the attack was likely co-ordinated, and was a sign of the insurgents' increasing effectiveness. "The Haqqani Network is working in a geographically different part of Afghanistan. But they have a level of co-ordination with the Taliban. They are not really working in isolation," he said. "There is a possibility of a joint operation. This is an indication that these people are improving their performance and ability."
The Haqqani Network draws resources principally from Pakistan, Gulf Arab networks, and from its close association with al Qa'eda and other Pakistan-based insurgent groups. Details of how the bomber managed to elude security checks were not clear, but US officials told the Associated Press that the man had been invited into the base as a potential informant before detonating the bomb. If the Taliban's claim that the attacker was an Afghan soldier is true, it could prove a stumbling block for US policymakers eager to involve Afghan security forces in law enforcement.
"This is not the first time an Afghan has turned his gun on his supposed ally," said Mr Alani. In November, the Taliban claimed that an Afghan policeman who killed five British soldiers at a checkpoint in Helmand province was one of their fighters. The sophistication of the attack on the CIA base was a sign that the Taliban was infiltrating the security forces, Mr Alani said. "To enter such a highly secure, protected place is not an easy job, especially since the Americans are fully aware that they are a target every minute," he said. "This sort of operation did not just happen. It was long planning to recruit the one who could basically get access to the target. It must be an insider job."
The fact that bomber managed to kill the base commander was an even more worrying sign. "This is a high quality attack," he said, and it was not likely to be the last. "The Taliban are now able to infiltrate the security services and the army and recruit the people they want." The likely American reaction was to reduce reliance on Afghans and subject them to additional scrutiny during recruitment, said Mr Alani, which would go against President Barack Obama's strategy of involving them in preparation for US disengagement.
The process could negatively impact American public opinion, which was not amenable to increased involvement, as well as in Afghanistan, where US soldiers would be seen increasingly as occupiers. "The Taliban strategy is to isolate the Americans in Afghanistan," Mr Alani said. "If you isolate them from the population - their perception will change that this is pure occupation, if you don't trust the nationals."
In the short term, the attack is a boon to Taliban morale. "This has a huge psychological impact on the Taliban. This sort of high quality operation will boost morale, and with better morale you have better quality of recruitment and more recruitment," he said. "The image of the Taliban now is that they are winning the war and you will have more people knocking on your door if you are the winner."
In a statement on Thursday, CIA director Leon Panetta confirmed that seven of his employees were killed and six others injured. He declined to elaborate on the nature of the base's operations. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org