After three hours of waiting, the Afghan police and soldiers that had kept away journalists from a dramatic firefight between insurgents and Western and Afghan forces in Kabul, stepped aside without warning. We walked with relative confidence in our safety across an exposed traffic circle and down a tree-lined boulevard toward the glowing taillights of a half dozen U.S. armored vehicles that had assaulted the uncompleted high-rise building that had provided cover for the insurgents. But a loud explosion and sustained heavy-caliber machinegun fire sent us diving for what little cover presented itself.
It took almost 20 hours for allied forces to to kill the attackers, identified by NATO and U.S. officials as members of the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. Initially, the Afghan forces police, army and air force helicopter gunships had tackled the insurgents, but when it became obvious that the Afghans' training and firepower were not sufficient to the task, NATO Special Forces were called in, supported by Blackhawk gunships laying down heavy fire through the night and into a second day.
The performance of the Afghan forces, who appeared unable either to root out the attackers or control the environment around the firefight, raised questions among locals and foreigners alike even among police and soldiers themselves about their ability to maintain security if Western forces stick to their 2014 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Journalists found their own intuition more helpful than Afghan soldiers' commands when it came to keeping themselves safe.
After a quick conversation, our group pulled itself out of the dirt and from behind the trees in the middle of the boulevard and ran across a wide road seeking the relative cover of some walls and shrubs. A second long burst and detonation sent us scuttling for a recessed concrete shop front. The only cover was some parked cars and busses; we hid in the mud.
The late-afternoon call to prayer brought a lull in firing, with a heavy rainstorm deepening the gloom around the standoff. "I don't know if we could win this without heavy American armor," said Farid, a policeman who like many Afghans goes by only one name, squatting in a muddy courtyard a couple of hundred meters away from the insurgents' position. "If Afghan gunships can't win, they won't." But the U.S. embassy and NATO are still trying to maintain an upbeat message.
"Afghan security forces showed they were up to the task of thwarting such operations and are willing to sacrifice their lives to reclaim their communities and country," said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in a statement. "The transition to Afghan-led security is on track, as we turn our focus to long-term efforts for supporting a more secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan."
That is a message that would have been skeptically received among residents of Kabul. But with 33,000 U.S. "surge" troops to be withdrawn by the end of next year and the transition to entirely Afghan security forces set for 2014, the U.S. and NATO need to promote the idea that Afghan forces are up to meeting the security challenge, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Nazir, a young bus driver stood near the firefight in the rainy dark, watching over his bus that was parked near the building under assault. Nearby a taxi sat on the square, the driver dead and his brother unable to recover the body. "We've been fighting for a thousand years between ourselves. We broke it and the Americans can never fix it. The Taliban are fighting poor Muslim soldiers and they continue to fight because the U.S. is still here," Nazir said.
As the sun broke over the Soviet-era apartment blocks the following morning, it was U.S. Blackhawks rather than Afghan Hind helicopters that strafed the building. The few dozen men and boys standing in front of their apartment building swelled into a large crowd that eventually found its way onto the boulevard in front of the tower. Young boys made shooting and explosion sounds as teenagers and men took pictures with their mobile phones. "This is bad for the kids," says Mohammad Hakim, who lives in an apartment looking onto the building under attack. "They get scared, but at the same time, they know this stuff better than us, since the fighting has been for their whole lives."
When a helmeted figure jumped between balconies and threw a grenade, rumors ran through the crowd that Afghan Special Forces were battling the fighters on the upper floors of the tower. But then some young boys saw from my camera that they were foreign. They seemed almost disappointed, but did not really care since the explosions, shooting and helicopters were so entertaining.
Finally, around noon, there was a long stretch of silence. The crowd moved directly onto the traffic circle in front of the towering half-completed building. A policeman's body was hauled away. The taxi was pushed to the side. Buffalo poked their heads over the side of a livestock truck left in the middle of the road the previous day, its radio still playing.
Then Afghan soldiers could be seen on the roof of the tower clapping. A cheer went up in the crowd. Some gave thumbs up signs. Later a group cheer could be heard within the construction site by the Afghan military. The foreign Special Forces left in SUVs, almost without a word, except "No, you canít go in, it's a crime scene." Soon after, the Afghan police and military allowed in dozens of journalists and soldiers to photograph the bodies of six slain fighters and to collect bullet casings and foreign grenade safety levers as souvenirs. One had his picture taken with two live grenades found near a fallen fighter.
That seemed an apt image for an episode that has demonstrated that while Tuesday's guns have finally gone silent, the Afghan forces' limited professionalism could mean the danger is far from over.