Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Taliban intensifies Afghan PR campaign

An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier keeps watch as smoke billows from a building

After the attack on buildings in Kabul that killed five people and injured 71, Allan Little - who was there - explains that while the militants certainly caused disruption, their mission was not entirely successful.

I heard the blast of the first explosion and wished it away, wanting to believe that it was the sound of something heavy and metallic dropped from a height by a construction worker.

But the unmistakable dug-a-dug-a-dug of machine gun fire left no room for wishful thinking and soon the air of central Kabul rang with the noise of the fight.

It is quite a moment, this sudden descent into violence. Your pulse quickens and your stomach lurches.

We were summoned to the basement of the hotel, down the winding stairwell where we met - on their way up - Afghan National Policemen, flak-jacketed and heavily armed.

Public opinion in Afghanistan has turned decisively against the Taliban
Allan Little

They took up gun positions on the roof, firing volley after volley into neighbouring buildings.

We followed what was happening by listening, tracking the sound of battle as it moved in an arc around us, engulfing what was supposed to be the fortified heart of the Afghan capital.

Orgy of violence

Soon you tasted on your tongue and in your throat the acrid gunpowder burn of spent rifle rounds.

Soon, four Afghan police came down into the basement carrying one of their comrades, gravely wounded or, more probably, dead.

Each of the four held a limb. His face, upside down and quite inert, was streaked with blood.

A number of the Kabul blast were captured on camera

They took him to a separate room. The hotel staff began to ask whether there was a doctor among the guests sheltering in the basement. There wasn't.

It seemed the city centre had exploded in an orgy of violence - grotesque, indiscriminate, chaotic.

But it was not chaotic. It was highly organised, co-ordinated.

Each of the attackers knew which target he had been allocated: one suicide bomber to the south gate of the presidential palace; others to the ministry of justice, the ministry of education; someone else to the headquarters of a national bank.

Neither was it indiscriminate.

News agency call

The Taliban, we learned later, having failed to storm the government buildings they had at first targeted, sought shelter elsewhere.

At least four went into a crowded shopping centre.

If their intention had been to kill as many people as possible, it would have been achievable there.

But they didn't. They ordered everyone - shoppers and shopkeepers alike - out. Soon the building was on fire.

The Taliban fighters died amid the flames, most of them in a volley of gunfire, while the last man alive blew himself up.

An Afghan police officer aims his weapon at the scene of attack in central Kabul
The Afghan-led operation regained control in a matter of hours

The number of civilians who died was - given the scale of what was happening - surprisingly low.

From Pakistan, we learned, a Taliban spokesman had called a news agency, while the attack was still under way, to announce that 20 of its militants were involved.

The public relations management was as vital to the perpetrators as the co-ordination of the attack itself.

This care, this determination to avoid civilian deaths is now part of the conflict in Afghanistan.

It is something the Taliban shares with its Nato enemies.

For public opinion in Afghanistan has turned decisively against the Taliban and they, like Nato, are engaged in a battle not just for power and territory but for the hearts and minds, the trust, of the Afghan people.

This time last year, when asked who they blamed for the violence in their country, more Afghans blamed Nato than the Taliban. That has turned around.

Now it is the Taliban they blame. Asked who they would rather have in power, 90% said the current government rather than the Taliban.

Most Afghans also support the surge in US troop numbers announced by President Obama last year, in effect doubling the size of the US military presence in less than 12 months.

Emphasis on protection

That is coupled with a radical change in strategy. The US commander General Stanley McChrystal not only persuaded President Obama to send more troops, he persuaded him to change the nature of their mission.

The emphasis now is on protecting the Afghan population, rather than on killing or capturing Taliban militants.

That means more foreign boots on Afghan soil, fewer air strikes, fewer civilian deaths attributable to Nato and, gradually, the building of trust.

The idea is no longer to defeat the Taliban militarily but to isolate them, marginalise them, and persuade the majority of those who volunteer to fight for them to reintegrate into the law-abiding Afghan mainstream.

Monday, when the dust settled, reflected all of that.

When the din was over, what did it reveal?

A Taliban that was careful not to take civilian lives; a Taliban that failed to storm any of the government buildings that it had targeted and ended up in the softest, least protected of buildings - a shopping centre and a cinema.

Finally, it revealed an Afghan-led security operation that was capable of regaining control of the streets in a matter of hours, watched - but largely unassisted - by Nato forces.

In the public relations battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it is the government that can, more plausibly, claim to have won the day.

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