U.S. General Narrowly Escapes Brazen Taliban Attack, But It's Still A Huge Blow To War Effort

The attack is both devastating and embarrassing for the Afghan and U.S. governments, who insist the insurgents are losing the initiative.

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The top American officer in charge of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan and all U.S. military forces in the country has narrowly escaped what the Taliban has claimed as an insider attack in the southern province of Kandahar. The shooter did manage to kill the province’s governor and its top police official, as well as the head of the National Directorate of Security intelligence agency in the region, underscoring that the insurgents remain highly capable of launching high profile para-military operations and terrorist attacks.

The attack in the palace in the province’s capital city of the same name came on Oct. 18, 2018, as U.S. Army General Scott Miller, head of the NATO-run Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, was meeting with Governor Zalmay Wesa, National Police General Abdul Raziq, and the province National Directorate of Security (NDS) chief, identified only as General Mominera. A number of initial reports that General Miller was wounded appear to be incorrect. The shooter, allegedly one of Wesa’s bodyguards, did leave three other unidentified U.S. personnel – one member of the military, one U.S. government civilian, and one contractor – with non-life threatening injuries before Afghan or coalition security forces fatally wounded him.

“At Kandahar palace today: Afghan-on-Afghan incident, as initial reports indicate,” according to a post from the Resolute Support Mission’s official Twitter account, which seemed to downplay the severity of the situation. “3 Americans wounded. Gen. Miller uninjured, attacker reportedly dead.”

Despite this mundane description, it’s hard to emphasize just how devastating the attack’s outcome, as well as the fact that it occurred in the first place, is for Kandahar specifically and for Afghanistan and the conflict there as a whole. If nothing else, it is another demonstration that, despite the coalition’s pronouncements to the contrary, the Taliban remain highly capable of targeting even some of the most senior Afghan and foreign officials at times and places of their choosing.

Even though General Miller thankfully escaped unharmed, that he was ever in danger is immensely embarrassing for the coalition, which continues to insist the Taliban are losing ground and are looking to sue for peace. Analysis by independent experts indicates that the insurgents effectively control more than 60 percent of the country and contest Afghan government control in even more areas.

“The other attacks that you referred to are done in more remote areas. And what we see is in the majority of those cases, those attacks fail,” now-retired U.S. Army General John Nicholson, who General Miller replaced as head of U.S. and coalition operations in Afghanistan in August 2018, declared to reporters in his final press briefing that month. “Where those attacks are successful in seizing a district center, typically the district centers are retaken. There have been a few that have fallen to the Taliban this year.”

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U.S. Army General Scott Miller, at left, the top commander of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, and his predecessor, now-retired U.S. Army General John Nicholson.

The reality of the situation, which the Taliban drove home with this latest insider attack, contrasts starkly with Nicholson’s assessment. It will almost certainly have a negative impact on morale among coalition and Afghan personnel and may force officials from the Resolute Support Mission to reconsider how and when they meet with their Afghan counterparts. Two U.S. troops have already died in insider attacks in 2018.

Beyond the psychological victory of successfully infiltrating into the inner circle of senior officials, unfortunately, the gunmen produced tangible results for the Taliban. In one fell swoop, the insurgents have effectively wiped out the Afghan government’s senior leadership in Kandahar.

The loss of General Abdul Raziq, who became chief of the National Police in Kandahar as a whole in May 2011, is likely to be especially pronounced. Shortly after taking up the post, he launched a massive crackdown in cooperation with the NDS and employing special police units that had received training from U.S. private military companies. He himself had previously worked with U.S. special operations forces in the country.

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General Abdul Raziq reviews Afghan policemen in 2012.

By all accounts, in the years that followed, he had positioned himself as the real government power broker in the southern Afghan province that the Taliban cite as their spiritual birthplace and as an unkillable opponent. The insurgents feared and despised Raziq, who himself is the subject of numerous allegations of drug trafficking, corruption, torture, extrajudicial killings, and more dating back to at least 2006.

It’s not clear whether or not Raziq’s death, or that of General Mominera, leads to a change in Afghan government tactics or general attitude. But the killings could very well have an impact on critical networks of spies and informants the two men had established in the province, giving the Taliban more freedom to operate and launch future attacks. In addition, whoever succeeds Raziq may not have his reportedly extensive connections to senior tribal leaders and other influential actors in Kandahar, which he fostered over the years and have also been important in challenging the insurgent group’s influence in the region.

All told, the attack is a major blow to the Afghan government and the U.S.-backed coalition and comes at a particularly sensitive time. Political crises and controversies over the electoral process, including voter rolls and registrations, had already forced the delay of planned parliamentary elections from July 7 to Oct. 20, 2018. These polls have been in the works since 2015.

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Afghan troops train in Kandahar in July 2018.

Security issues were also a factor in the delays, as the Taliban have successfully mounted attacks on major province capitals in 2018, most recently briefly having control of the seats of power in Ghazni. Afghan forces were only able to drive out the attackers after a withering display of American air and artillery strikes. Reports also indicate that the Afghan military and police units continue to suffer unsustainable losses. In September 2018, the casualty rate for the Afghan national security forces as a whole had reportedly spiked to nearly 60 every day.

On Oct. 13, 2018, the Taliban also said it had met with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar for a new round of talks on how to end the conflict in Afghanistan. The U.S. government refused to confirm or deny the meeting, but has lauded the insurgents’ recent openness to negotiations and cited that as a sign the group is feeling the pressure of a resurgent American military campaign under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Critics have contended that the Taliban appear to actually be increasingly negotiating from a position of strength and are still adamant that any final deal ends in the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. 

Neutering the Afghan government’s leadership in Kandahar, and almost killing the top foreign military officer in the country in the process, only seems to reinforce this viewpoint and seems to make it clear that insurgents are emboldened rather than on the run.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com