It's typical of the war in Afghanistan that all sides are claiming victory in the wake of the recent insurgent attacks on Kabul and other cities.
We seemed relieved that Afghan security forces, now believed to number 190,000, were able to put down the attacks albeit after several hours of fighting. That, according to the Western line, shows that the Afghan army and police service can defend the country against the Talibs and their allies.
But we're knocking down straw men. These attacks were just that, insurgent attacks, nothing more. There was nothing potentially decisive about them, nothing at all. They were not intended to bring down the central government or to defeat the Afghan army. The attackers didn't show up loaded for bear, ready to fight a sustained battle. They were mere skirmishers.
The insurgents also claim victory and, by all accounts, their claims seem more legitimate than ours. They staged a demonstration. They showed they could orchestrate a complex assault, striking multiple targets simultaneously. They showed they could preposition weapons and forces in several locations right under the noses of the Afghan military and police, completely undetected. They proved they retained the critical advantage of initiative. They can chose what to hit, when to hit and how to hit their targets.
The insurgents weren't entirely successful. Accounts suggest Afghan government forces were able to interdict some groups, including suicide bombers, before they could get into action.
These Haqqani/Taliban attacks are probably a limited precursor for what will follow when Western forces depart in 2014. The question then won't be the prowess of the Afghan army and police service but the viability of the central government and its institutions. Much of Afghanistan beyond the major cities remains under the control of warlords of diverse ethnicities and historically flexible loyalties. It is on those wobbly legs that the Kabul government stands and upon them that it may teeter and fall.
The big question may be whether, post-2014, the warlord structure or a sufficiently large part of it, coalesces behind the central government or instead devolves along tribal lines. With so much of the countryside still beyond Karzai's control it's difficult to imagine him keeping what remains in line. Then again I'm still willing to bet that the top left-hand drawer in Karzai's desk is full of European bank books and the top right-hand drawer equally full of first class airline tickets to carry him out of Afghanistan on short notice.