The recent attack by a Taliban infiltrator posing as a policeman that killed police chiefs General Daud Daud and General Shahjahan Noori indicate that the Taliban are increasingly relying on infiltrators. This tactic takes time and cultivation and indicates strategic thinking, factors that belie claims by international troops, most prominently the Americans, that the Taliban are scrambling under pressure from stepped up military operations against them.
General Petraeus touted in March that they had "halted or reversed" Taliban gains in certain areas of the country. Marine Major General Richard Mills said last month that the average age of a Taliban commander in the volatile province of Helmand dropped from 35 to 23. (How they estimated their ages remains a mystery -- it isn't that Taliban commanders shared their birth certificates with the Americans; like the vast majority of Afghans, none of them have one.)
Despite these sanguine assessments, the reality remains different. Take, for example, the latest infiltration tactic: The BBC reports that the infiltrators have sown "panic" among Afghan officials, who are worried about the increased frequency and ambition of these attacks.
The use of infiltrators is but one component of a new Taliban strategy to target the heart of the Afghan security establishment all over the country in a bid to debilitate its ranks and make it appear incapable of protecting itself, much less the wider population. General Daud is one of the two highest ranking Afghan government officials ever to be assassinated, and General Noori, the police chief of Takhar, is one of the several provincial police chiefs to be killed.
Starting with the mid-January assassination of the Kunduz police chief, General Abdul Rahman Sayedkheli, Taliban have since claimed the life of Kandahar police chief, General Khan Mohammad Mujahid, in mid-April (after failing two previous attempts on him).
Attacks on police chiefs are not new -- at least two others have been killed in Kandahar, one in 2005 another in 2009. What's unique is the intensity and effectiveness of the attacks -- four high-profile police chiefs have been killed in the last five months, three of them in the last two months.
Taliban infiltrators have also made daring attacks on Afghan military installations. Take, for example, the pattern of attacks in the last month. On April 7, an attack on a police training center in Kandahar and killed six people. General Petraeus himself later confirmed that the attackers had infiltrated the ranks of the Afghan security forces. On April 16, a Taliban suicide bomber wearing police uniform killed 5 international troops and 4 Afghan soldiers in an attack on an Afghan army base. On April 18 an infiltrator stormed the Defense Ministry, his car carrying the license plate of a high-ranking general, so guards let him through without stringent checks. The attacker was shot only yards away from the defense minister's office before he could detonate his explosives-laden vest. (The minister was not in the office at the time of the attack, Afghan officials say.) On May 21, six medical students were killed in Kabul's military hospital by attackers thought by some to have been infiltrators.
The attacks strategically targeting Afghan security officials and installations will serve to exacerbate the increasing pessimism about security among Afghans, showing that their protectors are unable to protect themselves.
And the lethality and frequency of these attacks does not indicate the Taliban are desperate, disorganized and operating haphazardly under pressure from the recent campaigns against them. In fact, it's the opposite -- the Taliban are taking advantage of a hasty bid to expand the Afghan security forces to a critical mass so international troops can go home. The process, spearheaded by ISAF, leaves little room for adequate vetting of the backgrounds of the recruits, creating space for Taliban infiltration.
The recent attacks on security establishments reveal Taliban's strategic thinking and inclination to undertake projects that take time and cultivation. They are willing to enlist their members in the ranks of the Afghan security forces and patiently wait as they undergo months of training and then posting. The government and international forces have claimed that some of the so-called infiltrators are just insurgents who happen to have acquired uniforms of Afghan security forces. (From whom?) But the Taliban have successfully mounted a deadly spring offensive and made the war the bloodiest it has ever been despite the international troops' best efforts, indicating that the insurgency is still better organized than portrayed by the international forces.
This sobering reality means that international and Afghan troops should stop deluding themselves and the public they protect with irrelevant metrics and false hopes. Because an honest assessment of the enemy's capabilities is half the preparation for what is shaping up to be a hard, long fighting season.