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Kabul Attacks: Even Before Taliban Siege Ends, A Battle For Messaging Rages

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Afghan security forces rush into battle against Taliban militants during a siege of Kabul on Sunday.
Afghan security forces rush into battle against Taliban militants during a siege of Kabul on Sunday.

WASHINGTON -- It didn't take long after the first suicide bomber blew himself up in Sunday's dramatic -- and still ongoing -- siege of central Kabul by Taliban militants for both sides to claim victory.

"The Kabul administration and the invading forces had said some time ago that the Taliban will not be able to launch a spring offensive," Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told Agence France Presse on Sunday. "Today's attacks were the start of our spring offensive."

But after a day in which some two-dozen self-proclaimed Taliban militants stormed high-profile sites across the Afghan capital and several other cities, resulting in few casualties, American officials had a different take.

"The Taliban are very good at issuing statements, less good at fighting," said Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, in an interview on CNN.

The statements demonstrate the public relations tug-of-war -- a war of words and analysis about who the Sunday siege most benefited -- before the fighting was even over.

Militants claimed to be affiliated with the Taliban stormed into the normally peaceful and secure diplomatic areas of central Kabul around 1:30 p.m. Sunday, in a series of coordinated strikes that appeared to target embassies and high-profile hotels.

Suicide bombers also attacked in three other cities in Afghanistan simultaneously. More than 12 hours later, the fighting continued, but Afghan Security forces -- who led the security response in the capital -- appeared to have most surviving militants pinned down.

For American and Western officials, the day's fighting was a sign of the security forces' vastly improved capabilities, something that has been in doubt ahead of the scheduled drawdown of NATO forces in 2014.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO, issued a statement from his Twitter account praising the actions of the Afghan security forces for "their courage & professionalism in dealing with today's attacks."

"Absolutely," replied Ivo Daalder, America's ambassador to the NATO, in a tweet. "And swift, decisive response by Afghan security forces shows transition process is proceeding well."

Still, as the fighting carried on into the night, American officials found themselves forced to ever-so-slightly modify their initial assessments.

An early press release from the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, the American-led coalition of troops in Afghanistan, described the attacks as "largely ineffective," and added -- in an accompanying tweet -- that the Afghan security forced had "repel[led]" the assault in Kabul.

Another tweet had mocked the assailants -- who reportedly used full-length burkas to avoid detection at checkpoints, mirroring a tactic from last September's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul -- for having "dressed as women again."

But an hour later, with the fighting ongoing, ISAF put out a second, softer statement, attributed to force commander Gen. John Allen.

"No one is underestimating the seriousness of today's attacks," Allen said, adding, "I am enormously proud of how quickly Afghan security forces responded to today's attacks in Kabul. They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained."

The accolades for Afghan security forces were not nearly as uniform from early eyewitness accounts on the ground.

"I was nearly shot in the back as I was walking down the street, not by a terrorist but by the Afghan police who were just shooting at everything," Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan member of Parliament, told the Guardian. "They had no idea where they were firing."

"This shows just how ridiculous the transition policy is," Frogh added. "I've never seen a street battle before, but what I saw today was the fragility of these police officers. It really shows how poor police training has been."

The attack was described by many observers as one of the most brazen by the Taliban. It was also seen as a sign that rendering the Taliban no longer capable of complex, coordinated military action is still a long way off.

"We do not know the number of casualties, but the important thing is the spectacular nature of the attack," Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reported Sunday. "Taliban will claim that once again they have struck at the heart of the city."

At one point, the fighting became so chaotic around the Parliament building that a lawmaker from Kandahar, Mohammad Nahim Lalai Hamidzai, went to the roof and fired back himself.

“I shot up to 400 or 500 bullets from my Kalashnikov at the attackers,” Hamidzai later told the Associated Press.

By Sunday evening in the U.S. -- early morning Monday in Kabul -- some fighting still lingered, mainly attributed to Taliban holdouts who were expected to fight until their deaths. But the attack itself largely seemed to be a tactical failure.

Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, told CNN late Sunday that most of the attackers had been killed, and of the 19 suicide bombers who had been deployed to attack the country, 15 had been stopped by Afghan security forces before they could blow themselves up.

"They came today with more than 20 insurgents and suicide bombers and attacked four provinces," Seddiqi said. "As a result, they got nothing, and 19 of them were killed."

Nevertheless, with the so-called "ring of steel" that supposedly keeps Kabul safe from the chaos of greater Afghanistan once again penetrated, the Taliban persisted in claiming strategic victory.

“Some days back the Secretary General of NATO on his visit to Kabul said that the Taliban are not strong enough now,” the Taliban's Mujahid told the Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “This was a clear message to him to show how strong we are."

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