Afghan spectacular bears hallmarks of Haqqani Network

Explosion in Kabul Image copyright Other

What does the wave of spectacular attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan on Sunday tell us about the capabilities of the Taliban? Very little, since it was not the Taliban, narrowly or correctly defined, that is believed to have carried them out.

The bloodshed does though give us some insights into the increasingly fraught endgame being played out by actors in the Afghan tragedy.

The Afghan Interior Ministry has already blamed the Haqqani Network for the co-ordinated assaults in which 38 militants were reported killed. The Interior Minister said on Monday that one of the captured men has already confessed to working for that group.

The pattern of the attacks closely resembles previous "spectaculars" by them, and is confined to the Haqqani heartlands in eastern Afghanistan as well as Kabul. In the centres of Taliban activity; Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan provinces there was no similar action.

Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, has maintained a close relationship with the group ever since Jalaladin Haqqani, the family patriarch, sought weapons and help in fighting the Soviet invader in the 1980s.

Senior American officials, like Admiral Mike Mullen, the previous chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, have publicly accused Pakistan of using the Haqqani Network as a "veritable arm" of their foreign policy in using it to mount earlier large scale attacks in Kabul.

Nato intelligence analysts categorise the network as part of "the insurgency" but not "the Taliban", a term which they identify with the Quetta Shura or council of leaders who formerly ran the country under Mullah Omar.

The view of many in the secret world is that Adm Mullen was if anything understating the degree of complicity between the Pakistani authorities and the Haqqani Network.

It is a hallmark of Haqqani Network spectacular attacks in recent years on hotels, embassies, and ministries in Kabul that they have used men or boys recruited in Pakistani madrassas as suicide operatives.

And they have shown a higher degree of organisation than would be typical for the Taliban groups, for example attacking British patrols in Helmand, who are usually local men acting with a small degree of outside help.

Those who sift intelligence at Nato headquarters or at the NDS (President Hamid Karzai's National Directorate of Security) tend to regard the Haqqani Network's spectaculars as Pakistani supported attempts to create an atmosphere of crisis in Kabul, and an undignified exit for the Western alliance.

It is a business of sowing chaos for its own sake, even if the men who carry out the attacks may share many of the beliefs of the typical Talib.

The Nato response to the events of the past 48-hours is to attempt to deny the group and its Pakistani sponsors the coup they are seeking.

The Nato spokesman was quick to congratulate the Afghan police on their response to the crisis, as a result of which just four civilians were reportedly killed by the militants - in other words the attacks show how well Mr Karzai's forces are prepared for Nato's drawdown, not how badly.

Lest we get too carried away with optimism about the success of Nato's security operations, the rapid response to this latest crisis does not really tell us anything about the broader state of the insurgency or attempts to counter it.

It is clear that incidents have dropped in the south, but how far this results from Western operations or from a deliberate change to less violent tactics by the Taliban (as a crecent leaked Nato report of detainee interrogations suggested it was) is open to question.

In Washington, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis has caused consternation by publishing a report, "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan", that accuses senior commanders of falsifying evidence of "success" in their struggle against the insurgents.

My own view, having seen the campaign evolving on the ground over the years is that the level of violence is definitely lower in places like central Helmand or Kandahar, but the real question is to do with how far this is the result of Nato action.

It is also true that General David Petraeus and others castigated by Lt Col Davis for being unduly optimistic have been saying for more than a year, that with security improving in the south, the key battle of summer 2012 would be in the east - in other words where the Haqqani Network is strongest.

So after a day of gunfire, the Afghan capital now reverberates to the sound of spin and blame. The president says Nato intelligence should have seen it coming. His own intelligence or interior ministry people blame the Haqqani group and the ISI. The Taliban have tried to take the credit, although pretty much all of the evidence points to Haqqani. A lone voice in Washington meanwhile cries out "we are being lied to".

Of all the questions produced by the past 36-hours perhaps the most important is whether the fragile process of talking to the Taliban (to be clear, this means the Quetta Shura leadership) might have had any influence on this.

Attempts to use the return of some Afghans held in Guantanamo as a starting point for "liaison talks" in Qatar with the Quetta Shura have faltered for the moment.

Those who are familiar with the long history of talking to Taliban intermediaries tell me that Mullah Omar's men do not pretend that they could deliver peace either with the Haqqani Network or with the other principal arm of the insurgency, the Hezb-e-Islami group of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - another veteran of the Soviet jihad and indeed of co-operation with Pakistan's ISI.

Indeed there have been times in the past couple of years when Taliban have actually fought members of these other two insurgent groups over turf.

This is the key point in seeing the irrelevance of these recent attacks to the Taliban, which continues to be the dominant force in the insurgency. The Haqqani Network, it seems, will do its own thing until Pakistan decides it is time to stop.