Wednesday, September 14, 2011

US Embassy and NATO Headquarters Hit by Coordinated Attacks in Kabul

September 13, 2011

U.S. Embassy and NATO Headquarters Attacked in Kabul

New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Heavily armed insurgents wearing suicide vests struck Tuesday at two of the most prominent symbols of the American diplomatic and military presence in Kabul, the United States Embassy and the nearby NATO headquarters, demonstrating the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate even the most heavily fortified districts of the capital.

As the insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades, Westerners sought shelter — one rocket penetrated the embassy compound — and Afghan government workers fled their offices, emptying the city center. NATO and Afghan troops responded with barrages of bullets. At least 7 people were killed and 19 wounded by the insurgents.

The Taliban siege ended Wednesday morning after 19 hours with nine insurgents killed, three of them on Tuesday and the rest early Wednesday, said the Kabul Provincial police chief, Gen. Mohammed Ayoub Salangi.

At least five of the attackers had taken positions in a 14-story building under construction with clear sight lines to the targets.

As the gunfire pounded, loudspeakers at nearby embassies kept repeating: “This is not a drill, this is not a drill. If you are in a secure location, do not move.”

Security forces moved floor to floor, occasionally taking fire, as they fought to gain complete control of the building. Traffic was barred from the center of the city and military helicopters whirred overhead early Wednesday.

Though staved off after about five hours, the attack was the most direct on the American Embassy since it opened here 10 years ago, and was freighted with intended symbolism. It was one of several recent attacks in Kabul that demonstrated the Taliban’s ability to terrify the population, dominate the media and overshadow the West’s assertions that the Afghan government and security forces would soon be able to handle the insurgency.

The insurgents have made such guerrilla-style attacks the centerpiece of their new strategy after a year in which the addition of 30,000 more American forces to the war set back the Taliban’s capacity for frontal attacks and their ability to control entire districts in the south.

Spectacular though not significant militarily, the attacks nonetheless serve to weaken trust in the government and show that the Taliban can still outmaneuver, even if for only a few hours, both the Afghan forces and their Western counterparts.

With the Obama administration facing mounting budget problems and having fixed a timetable to withdraw most forces by 2014, the assault also appeared to signal Taliban resolve to battle Western forces to the hour of their exit. A Western official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the attack made the talk of a peace deal with the Taliban seem “absurd.”

The official said: “This doesn’t show reconciliation; it does show determination. If the Taliban can do this with five guys perched in a building and they can alternate it with these vehicle-borne I.E.D.’s” — car bombs — “which they have been doing more of, well then this won’t be the last time.” I.E.D. stands for improvised explosive device.

The assault was all the more dismaying because it suggested that the insurgents had the support of many people along the way who had allowed the heavily armed men to enter the city and then let them pass unhindered through the rings of security and checkpoints closer to the capital’s center.

Although large areas of rural Afghanistan have long been thought to be heavily infiltrated by the Taliban, Kabul is widely viewed as relatively safe because of the international presence and large numbers of Afghan security and intelligence forces there. Tuesday’s attack, which began around 1:15 p.m., was but the latest to chip away at that tenuous sense of security. In August, militants killed eight people at a British cultural center. In June, nine suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel.

“The nature and scale of today’s attack clearly proves that the terrorists received assistance and guidance from some security officials within the government who are their sympathizers,” said Mohammed Naim Hamidzai Lalai, chairman of Parliament’s Internal Security Committee. “Otherwise it would be impossible for the planners and masterminds of the attack to stage such a sophisticated and complex attack, in this extremely well-guarded location without the complicity from insiders.”

President Hamid Karzai vowed that the attack would not deter his government from taking control of security from Western forces on the current schedule, which envisions full Afghan control by the end of 2014. “The attacks cannot stop the process of transition from taking place and cannot affect it, but rather will embolden our people’s determination in taking the responsibility for their country’s own affairs,” Mr. Karzai said.

The Afghan security forces handled the response to the attack on Tuesday with little visible support from NATO troops, other than some surveillance about two hours into the attack, when Black Hawk helicopters circled the building where the assailants were holed up, but did not fire.

Soon after that, Afghan forces flew their own attack helicopters to the building, strafing it and appearing to hit their target consistently. Late into the night, Afghan forces were still clearing the building, floor by floor, concerned that a bomber or two might still be hiding there, said Gen. Mohammad Ayoub Salangi, the police chief of Kabul Province.

However, police officers on the ground, while trying to control the chaos, also added to the whirlwind of gunfire filling the air, at times hoisting their rifles over walls and hedge banks and firing toward the building from blocks away without aiming.

The attack came less than two months after Afghan forces assumed formal responsibility for security in the capital. It was one of several corners of the country where security was officially handed over in July.

Kerri Hannan, a spokeswoman for the American Embassy, said that no embassy personnel had been hurt, but several Afghans who were at the embassy were wounded. There were no injuries at NATO headquarters.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

At least one explosive projectile landed at the offices of the Afghan Tolo television channel, and another exploded near a school minibus, though no injuries were reported. The Iranian English-language television channel PressTV also reported that its Kabul office was under attack and that several people were hurt, but offered no other details.

In the west of the city, a suicide bomber set off an explosive vest in an attack that wounded one civilian and killed a policeman. Afghan officials said they thwarted at least two other attempted suicide bombings in Kabul, shooting and killing both attackers.

The streets surrounding the site of the attack, normally choked with the traffic of minibuses, bicycles and cars, were deserted on Monday afternoon of all but security forces and people racing for cover.

Sangar Rahimi, Waheed Abdul Wafa and Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.

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