The Kabul Intercontinental Attack: The Taliban's Clear Message

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Stringer / Reuters

Smoke and flames rise from the Intercontinental hotel during a battle between NATO-led forces and suicide bombers and Taliban insurgents in Kabul June 29, 2011.

Ali Omar and his son Ali Omar had returned to Kabul for a visit. The father had moved to the U.S. years ago and the son was born there. On Tuesday, they were having dinner by the pool of the Intercontinental Hotel in the Afghan capital where they were staying during their trip. It was a festive evening with several parties of well-to-do Afghans celebrating birthdays and other occasions. Then came the sound of gunfire. "The police told us it was some kids messing around and not to worry about it," says Ali Omar the younger, the owner of an Afghan restaurant in Fremont, California. "Then the gunshots kept getting closer and closer." His father adds, "At first, it was one or two shots from far away. After 15-16 minutes it was wild. War. Everyone was escaping."

Nine Taliban fighters had entered the heavily fortified Intercontinental Hotel in a brazen attack on foreigners and Afghan provincial officials who were in town to prepare for the wind-down of coalition forces set to begin in July. Once the intruders got past three heavily defended security checkpoints up a winding road and into the hotel — still decorated in a decaying, late 1970s style of plate glass windows, marble and heavy velvet curtains — there was chaos. Ali Omar the restaurant owner began videotaping what he saw. "I recorded it up to the point where a guy came in and started shooting into the crowd, then it was a free-for-all," he says. The video shows police standing on the pool deck with AK-47 rifles. People walk by the camera and Omar points out a policeman who he said was shot and killed minutes later. The tape cuts off as a loud explosion is heard.

Eyewitnesses say about 60-to-70 people, including women and children, were on the pool deck having dinner when men in white headscarves, carrying AK-47s and grenades and apparently suicide vests ran in shouting in Pashto and started shooting. The people on the pool deck all ran and jumped off the back wall, onto a steep, wooded hillside that leads down to a main road. The crowd had to knock down a section of a wall topped with barbwire to make it to safety on the street, according to the younger Omar, who recounted the episode, still in a blood spattered shalwar kimeez. Diners and hotel guests tell TIME the attack began around 10 p.m. Most of the fighting did not end until around 4 a.m., after NATO helicopter gunships killed three insurgents on the roof of the hotel. But the siege only came to a close early in the morning when the last bomber, who had been hiding out in the hotel, blew himself up.

The assault left between 18 and 21 dead and 13 wounded, Ministry of Interior spokesman Sadiq Sadiqi told TIME. Local news said nine civilians, two policemen, one Spanish national and nine suicide bombers were killed and that 13 civilians, five government officials and two NATO soldiers were wounded.

The Taliban had its official version. The group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tells TIME that "eight suicide attackers entered from the west gate of the Intercontinental Hotel. One of them blew himself up at the gate. He killed some guards and police and destroyed the gate." Mujahid tells TIME that "only 13 foreigners were killed" without mentioning any Afghan fatalities. "The suicide attackers were contacting me while they were attacking and told me how many foreigners they were killing." He continues, "then they heard the helicopters coming. They went to the windows to shoot at them and they were killed by the helicopters. It was around 4 AM when we lost connection with them. Every five minutes they were calling us to tell us about the casualties."

The attack came a day after the end of a high-level meeting in Kabul that was preparing for the Bonn 2 Conference, a 50-nation meeting that will be held to discuss the upcoming security transition in July and the withdrawal of foreign military forces in 2014. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told TIME that the target of the attack was guests staying at the hotel: governors and mayors from the three provinces and four cities — Kabul, Bamyan and Panjsher provinces and the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Lashkar Gah and Mehtarlam — that will be the first to see the security transitions from coalition to Afghan forces in July.

As the transition draws near, the attack on the hotel has only reinforced the belief of Afghans and foreigners that Afghan forces are not ready to take over security responsibilities. "We heard shooting and we saw the police dropping their weapons and running from the area," says Noor Mohammad, a member of the National Directorate of Security who was still in uniform and had been at the hotel for his boss' birthday party. "I can't trust them. How can I trust them? They dropped their weapons because they heard some shooting. How can they ensure security for us? How can they fight against the Taliban? No way, I don't trust them at all," he says quietly as he cradled a hand that had been cut by barbwire as he helped his boss' children escape down the hillside.

"In any way possible, the program will be successfully implemented. Our enemies know that they don't have the capability to hurt our national intention," said Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the Chief of the Security Transition Program. "Our country is ready to take any sacrifice necessary on this path," Ahmadzai said today at the government's first security handover conference, Tolo TV reported. But in light of today's attack many Afghans will continue to disagree.

Sahel Wafa, an Afghan who now works for a pharmaceutical company in London after having fled the fighting in the 1980s, watched the attack unfold from the roof of his parents' house. He saw the entire assault and the police reaction from his vantage point across the street from the entrance to the hotel. "I don't think they're ready to take over security. I suppose that as soon as the Americans troops leave, you will see a lot of chaos. Not only from the Taliban, but within the Afghan people, the society. I don't think the security forces are ready to take over at all."