How a chaotic hostage rescue foreshadows Afghanistan's post-American future

On the morning of Jan. 10, 2012, five Taliban insurgents wearing stolen army and police uniforms stormed a government complex in Sharana, the capital of restive Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan. Their goal: to strike a meeting of the province’s top civilian, police, military and intelligence officials – essentially decapitating the provincial government of one of Afghanistan’s most important regions.

They failed — barely. Defeating just five insurgents barricaded in a stairwell required a chaotic seven-hour gun battle up and down three stories of a telecommunications building. Two civilian hostages and three policemen died in the tumult of the assault’s first few hours, as impatient Afghan leaders — whom the U.S.-led coalition deliberately allowed to take the lead — sent lightly armed cops on an almost suicidal frontal attack aimed at retaking the captured facility. Even that required the firepower of supporting U.S. Army troops and the intervention of a Polish commando unit, along with their Afghan trainees.

The obscure Sharana battle, reconstructed by Danger Room over the past year, offers a preview of what Afghanistan will look like after 2014, when all but a handful of U.S. and NATO troops leave. To temper expectations of how Afghan forces will perform when they’re in charge of the war, U.S. officials often use the term “Afghan good enough.” Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, told The New York Times that the goal of “Afghan good enough” is an Afghanistan that “has a degree of stability.”