“It’s a wake-up call,” the U.S. general said. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re still here.’ ”
By demonstrating “the ability to strike at will against heavily guarded fortifications,” Foust said, “it shakes confidence, and it obscures the coalition’s metrics. Overall Taliban attacks may be down, but it doesn’t look that way to the Afghans — or the American people.”
To some military officials and independent analysts, the Taliban’s strategic shift suggests not just an adaptable adversary but greater involvement in the planning of attacks by elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service, which have long aided the Taliban.
Most of the recent high-profile attacks in Kabul, and many of the assassinations of senior Afghan leaders, have been conducted by fighters from the Pakistan-based Haqqani network. The officials and analysts see signs that the Haqqanis may be working more closely with the principal Taliban faction, led by the movement’s reclusive leader, Mohammad Omar.
The attack on the NATO base over the weekend “outstrips the ability of Mullah Omar to coordinate all of it,” said Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who tracks the Haqqani network. “Clearly there’s someone in the background pulling the puppet strings.”
So far, shifts in the Taliban’s strategy have not led the White House to halt troop reductions — all of the surge forces are scheduled to depart by the end of this month, leaving about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan — but the pattern of violence could affect how the winner of the presidential election chooses to adjust troop levels next year.
Regardless of how that decision plays out, the Taliban does not appear headed for defeat anytime soon. Large stretches of southern and eastern Afghanistan still remain in the grip of Omar’s faction or the Haqqanis, and incipient peace talks with the Afghan government do not appear to have gained traction.
“They know they’re not in a terrible place,” Dressler said. “They can lose every tactical battle, but they’re trumping it by winning the strategic narrative and the waiting game.”