Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Afghanistan Resistance Forces Attack Presidential Palace

Taliban Attack Afghan Presidential Palace

Wall Street Journal

KABUL—The Taliban launched a coordinated attack on the Afghan presidential palace and official buildings in the heart of Kabul early Tuesday, underscoring their willingness to fight even after opening a political office in Qatar to negotiate a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan.

Nathan Hodge has details of a brazen attack launched by the Taliban on the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The attack began shortly after 6:30 a.m., when one team of gunmen emerged from a small white minibus not far from the Salam Khana Gate outside the heavily fortified palace and opened fire on guards manning a nearby checkpoint.

A group of reporters waiting for a scheduled press event with President Hamid Karzai were trapped near the gate as guards returned fire. A Wall Street Journal reporter on the scene saw several Afghan guards who were apparently struck by gunfire in the opening volley. The journalists fled to take cover and sheltered in a building near the road.

Speaking by telephone, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the attackers had been tipped off to the planned event.

"We had exact information about Karzai's media event today," he said.

The ensuing firefight lasted more than an hour until all of the attackers were killed.

Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior, said a total of four attackers in two vehicles were involved in the attack; one vehicle was destroyed in an explosion, and a second vehicle managed to reach closer to the apparent target of the attack, he said.

Three Afghan guards manning a checkpoint were killed, and one was injured, Mr. Sediqqi said. Mr. Karzai, whose home and office are nestled far behind additional layers of security inside the sprawling palace compound, wasn't believed to have been in imminent danger.

Evidence pointed to a well-planned attack. Mr. Sediqqi said the attackers were in military uniform, and the Afghan Ministry of Defense said they used fake documents to infiltrate the fortified zone, an area ringed with concrete blast walls and protected by heavily armed guards. The palace is in proximity to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency compound and to several embassies and ministries.

Afghan security and intelligence officers stand guard near the entrance gate of the presidential palace in Kabul Tuesday.

In a statement claiming responsibility for the violence, the Taliban said they targeted the former Ariana Hotel, which houses the CIA, the nearby presidential palace and the adjoining ministry of defense as part of their spring offensive.

According to the Taliban, eight insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and hand grenades took part in assault; the group also claimed to have killed several U.S. intelligence officers. Insurgents routinely make exaggerated claims about inflicting casualties on U.S. and coalition personnel.

The Taliban in recent weeks have staged several high-profile attacks in Kabul, trying to show that the insurgency remains undefeated even as U.S.-led coalition forces go home, and that the Taliban must have a significant say in how Afghanistan is governed after next year's coalition pullout.

Such attacks included an assault by militants armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests on the military side of Kabul International Airport and an hourslong attack on the compound of the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations-affiliated agency, as well as a deadly bombing outside Afghanistan's Supreme Court.

Tuesday's attack occurred less than a day after Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with Mr. Karzai to discuss the faltering peace process.

Mr. Karzai was angered by the high-profile opening of the Taliban office in Qatar and suspended security talks with the U.S. in protest. He also canceled plans by Afghan negotiators to travel to Qatar.

Mr. Karzai was particularly angered by the Taliban placing on the Qatar office building a plaque with the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the country's official name under the Taliban rule before the 2001 U.S. invasion, and flying their white flag at the inauguration ceremony. The plaque was subsequently removed and the flag lowered.

Sami Sadat, a security analyst based in Kabul, said Tuesday's attack was a show of strength for the Taliban after the controversial opening of their office in Qatar.

"Removing the plaque and lowering the flag was a major setback," he said. "It showed that the world is not a place where the Taliban are welcome."

Mr. Sadat speculated the aim of the attack was to boost the morale of their supporters and to "send a message to the outside world that they are still in the game and that they are dangerous."

Idrees Zaman, the director of the Co-operation for Peace and Unity, a Kabul-based think tank, described Tuesday's attack as an attempt by the Taliban to increase their leverage in planned talks in Qatar.

"It's to have a better negotiating chip in peace talks," he said.

Afghanistan observers see the Taliban as a fractured movement, with a weak leadership and poor communication. Many of the Taliban who in the Qatar office are former diplomats who spent much of the past decade living outside Afghanistan, and Mr. Zaman said it was unclear how much contact there is between them and field commanders.

But the attack, Mr. Zaman added was "a clear message that President Karzai is not welcome in the [peace] process."

—Habib Khan Totakhil contributed to this article.
Write to Nathan Hodge at nathan.hodge@wsj.com and Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

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