The Taliban Offensive: NATO and Afghan President Karzai Clash over Messaging

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Massoud Hossaini / AFP / Getty Images

An Afghan police officer moves the door of a car used in a suicide attack outside the building where Taliban fighters launched an attack in Kabul on April 16, 2012

The 18-hour, Taliban-led onslaught on Sunday that rocked parts of Afghanistan, including the heavily fortified heart of its capital, Kabul, is being spun in different directions by those locked in the struggle over the war-torn country. Taliban elders crowed that the audacious attacks were just the latest evidence of their fighters’ ability to hoodwink the local and international forces arrayed against them — landing yet another psychological blow against an occupying army heading out the door by 2014 with no clear victory in sight.

Adding to the unease, Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed the raid on intelligence failures “especially [on the part of] NATO” — hardly a ringing endorsement of his would-be protectors. Reporters in Kabul, including TIME’s John Wendle, detailed the resignation and fatalism of some Afghans, who see the continued conflict as a direct outcome of foreign occupation. When asked whether the attacks were carried out by Taliban combatants or by agents of the notorious Pakistan-based Haqqani network, one Afghan official told TIME: “There is no difference. They are all enemy. They are all on the same side, fighting us. They fight because the U.S. and NATO are here.”

(PHOTOS: A Long and Distant War: Photos from Afghanistan, 1988–2009)

NATO officials in Brussels had to sing from a completely different song sheet, though, emphasizing the role Afghan troops played in repelling the raid. Briefing the press on Monday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: “These attacks were planned, coordinated and they grabbed the headlines, but they did not cause mass casualties, and we have the Afghan forces to thank for that.” Lungescu went on praise the “growing capabilities” of the Afghan security forces, whose ability to tackle the long-standing Taliban insurgency is still very much in question.

In Brussels, it’s clear to all that the future and legacy of NATO’s decadelong mission in Afghanistan hinge on the integrity and strength of the Afghan army. To compensate for the impending departures of coalition forces, NATO plans to help Afghan troop numbers “surge” to an expected 352,000 men by October this year. Afghan forces have been handed direct control of large swaths of the country, including Kabul province. And, at least in NATO’s messaging, confidence in the Afghan security establishment has never been higher.

Addressing a handful of reporters on Monday, a top-ranking NATO official spoke of the challenge ahead. “It’s not surprising to us that there is still a determined adversary in Afghanistan, determined to cause maximum havoc and maximum harm,” he said. “But what happened [Sunday] in many ways is a reaffirmation that the strategy we are on is a strategy that is working.”

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The official went on: “The kind of thing that we saw in Kabul [Sunday] is very different than the occupation and holding of territory that used to be the case [earlier in Helmand province and other parts of the country]. We are shifting the fight from a fight over territory to a fight of dealing with people who are trying to use terrorist methods. We see that as progress over time and [a reflection] of Afghans taking the measure of their own security.”

Yet, as NATO prepares for a pivotal summit in Chicago this May, serious doubts hover over the alliance and its mission in Afghanistan. By the time of the conference, France, a key member state, may have elected a new President who has said he would withdraw his country’s soldiers ahead of schedule from their West Asian deployment. An internal report reviewing the alliance’s campaign in Libya — hailed by some in Brussels as proof positive of NATO’s vitality — spotlighted the organization’s continued overreliance on American capabilities; Washington tried to disguise its involvement in the 2011 intervention as that of a backseat driver. Europe’s new era of austerity has accelerated the continent’s already waning interest in foreign imbroglios. Shrinking defense budgets have forced NATO officials to start peddling the term smart defense — a scheme for shared security strategies that optimistically aims to do more with less.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, it remains hard to see any resolution of the war with the Taliban without peace talks and political reconciliation — a subject that was conspicuously absent in a number of briefings in Brussels on the situation in Afghanistan. Even as NATO praises the Afghan security forces that its member states have spent years training, “green on blue” shootings of coalition soldiers by rogue Afghan personnel continue. That’s a symptom not only of years of conflict and agony in a nation but also of a quagmire NATO and its partners are now fitfully trying to escape.

MORE: We’ve Accomplished Our Mission in Afghanistan. Bring the Troops Home Now

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