Militants Launch Attack on Afghan Capital

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Musadeq Sadeq / AP

Afghan policeman is on guard as a building burns in central Kabul.

The heart of Kabul was under siege for several hours Monday as Taliban insurgents launched their biggest assault on the capital in months, with gunmen opening fire outside the presidential palace and at least two suicide bombs being detonated. The attack seemed intended to send a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that his government's plan to try to bring Taliban fighters over to its side with an incentive package of jobs and education programs — in addition to the surge of 30,000 additional U.S. soldiers being deployed to the country — will be met with fierce resistance by the militant group.

The insurgents launched their attack around 9:30 a.m., targeting several different locations in the center of the city in swift succession — a bank, two shopping centers, a luxury hotel and government buildings, including Karzai's palace, where several members of the cabinet were being sworn in. According to a Taliban spokesman who spoke to the Associated Press, 20 armed militants carried out the attack, including two suicide bombers who blew themselves up near the palace and in a traffic circle a half mile away. One explosives-laden vehicle was suspected to have been stolen from the government, which would have given the militants access to relatively secure parts of the capital.

Explosions and heavy gunfire rattled the city for several hours as Afghan security forces battled back, eventually cornering the last of the insurgents in an office building. Six hours later, the streets were quiet again. Karzai told reporters that security forces had regained control of the city and were searching for any militants who might still be hiding. Authorities said at least five people — three security forces and two civilians — were killed and 71 people were wounded. The U.S. embassy in Kabul immediately condemned the attack and pledged that the U.S. would "continue to stand with the Afghan people and their government and with our allies and partners around the world to defeat our common enemy and build a more secure and prosperous future."

Kabul has been battered by bomb blasts over the last several months — including an Oct. 28 attack on a U.N. guesthouse that left 11 people dead — but Monday's attack represented a sharp escalation in the violence. Farida Nekzad, an Afghan journalist based in Kabul, told TIME that the insurgents targeted places frequented by foreign diplomats and ordinary civilians alike. Authorities said several insurgents stormed the Ferushgah shopping center and ordered people to get out before firing shots from the roof and then setting the building ablaze. Other militants reportedly struck a movie theater, a hotel popular with Westerners, the central bank, the Gul Bahar shopping center and the Justice Ministry. According to a Taliban spokesman who spoke to the Associated Press, 20 armed militants carried out the attack, including two suicide bombers who blew themselves up near the palace and in a traffic circle a half mile away. The streets quickly emptied of people as residents shuttered themselves in their homes. "People are worried," Nekzad says. "The situation in Afghanistan is getting worse day by day."

Brahma Chellaney, a security analyst based in New Delhi, said the ferocity of the attack — with militants using machine guns, grenades, suicide bombs and remote-controlled mines — was consistent with a "pattern of international terrorism" that has emerged in the region in recent years. In November 2008, gunmen believed to be part of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba unleashed a similar commando-style raid on Mumbai over a three-day period, killing about 170 people. Analysts say the timing of Monday's attack was also key, as it came at a particularly vulnerable moment for Karzai. In an attempt to turn the tide in the fight against the Taliban, he is expected to unveil a new plan next week in London to offer $1 billion in incentives — including jobs, education programs and other social benefits — to fighters to encourage them to come over to the government's side. Chellaney says the attack "makes a mockery of the plan."

An unnamed Taliban spokesman reached by phone by the New York Times said the assault was in reaction to the government proposal to "reconcile" with and "reintegrate" Taliban fighters into mainstream society. "We are ready to fight and we have the strength to fight and nobody from the Taliban side is ready to make any kind of deal," another Taliban representative, Zabihullah Mujahid, told the Times. "The world community and the international forces are trying to buy the Taliban and that is why we are showing that we are not for sale."

The assault was also likely intended to be a signal to the U.S. that its plan to increase its troop levels this year could have violent consequences. Just days ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, gave an interview with ABC News in which he praised the progress that an earlier troop surge has made in securing Helmand province and taking momentum away from the Taliban. U.S. military officials have noted in the past, however, that dramatic attacks will still occur in the country despite the extra troops on the ground. Monday's commando raid seemed to prove the point. For a few hours, insecurity reigned and a bit of the government's hard-won progress slipped away.
With reporting from Shah Barakzai in Kabul