Haqqani Offensive? Afghan Forces Battle Insurgents in the Streets of Kabul

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John Wendle / Polaris

Officers from the Afghan police and National Directorate of Security run across an exposed intersection during heavy fighting in Kabul's diplomatic enclave, fearing snipers, April 15, 2012.

Updated: Apr. 16, 2011 at 8:30 a.m. EST

Explosions and machine gun fire drowned out the early evening call to prayer in Kabul on Sunday as a small group of insurgents continued an ongoing fight against Afghan soldiers, police, commandos and a detachment of Norwegian Special Forces in the diplomatic enclave of the Afghan capital. As night fell, blasts could still be heard and roads remained closed in a wide cordon. Young men poked their heads out of their compounds and gathered in small groups on the street, talking quietly.

After a little more than four months of quiet in the city, multiple assaults were carried out throughout Kabul and across the country on Sunday — ending a period of calm and marking the start of fighting that often begins as the weather warms. According to Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi, who spoke to the Associated Press, 36 insurgents were killed in the attacks that also claimed the lives of eight policemen and three civilians. Later on Monday, a top Afghan security official said that an arrested militant has confessed that the assault was carried out by the Haqqani network, a group with ties to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The fighting broke out around 2 p.m. in the neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan, as traffic backed up near the diplomatic enclave and police and private security guards gathered on the streets. The U.S., British, German and Japanese embassies all came under fire.

Across the city, armed men attacked the Afghan Parliament while it was in session. Both Afghan security forces and lawmakers took up arms to return fire from the roof, driving off the attack, AFP reported. Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security (NDS) told AFP that Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's two deputies, was also targeted.

The wire also reported that Camp Eggers, the International Security and Assistance Force Headquarters, Camp Warehouse and Camp Gazni all took fire. Insurgents also attacked government compounds in Logar province, the airport at Jalabad, a major American base, as well as a police facility in Paktya province.

"These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters. "The Kabul administration and the invading forces had said some time ago that the Taliban will not be able to launch a spring offensive. Today's attacks were the start of our spring offensive," he said, according to AFP. "In all these attacks, tens of mujahedeen fighters equipped with light and heavy weapons, suicide vests, RPGs, rockets, heavy machine guns and hand grenades are attacking their targets," Mujahid said in an email, the Associated Press reported. "Our initial reports indicate that a large number of foreign forces, Afghan police and army are killed and wounded," he said.

Nearing the scene of the fighting, Afghan commandos mentored by Norwegian Special Forces, bunched up at the corner of a row of dilapidated motorbike repair garages. The normally bustling scene at the intersection had evaporated as the sound of heavy machine-gun fire and occasional explosions including numerous large blasts that could have been suicide bombers or RPGs, reverberated off the buildings. Just 200 meters from the entrance to the semi-secured diplomatic area, Afghan troops and police had gathered to block the road.

Amid heavy shooting, the group of about 25 Afghan and five Norwegian commandos ran across the street, fearing snipers. Soon, they entered the compound of a hydroelectric company whose back wall accessed a 10- to 12-story building still under construction.

Within minutes the commandos had stationed snipers on that building and a nearby residential structure, returning fire on insurgent positions. It was not their first time carrying out this kind of operation. The same group of commandos had helped end a 19-hour attack on the U.S. embassy and other facilities that left at least 14 dead in September. It was also the same unit that had assaulted insurgents who had attacked the British Council cultural center in August, leaving nine dead.

As the shooting continued, Special Forces soldiers began to lay down fire in sustained bursts that left journalists and Afghan police scrambling for cover. Trying to get a better vantage, Afghan soldiers and journalists crossed the intersection, running bent over as the firing continued. At one point, a round whizzed by so close, this correspondent took cover in a dry sewer along with a photographer.

As evening approached, three bodies of wounded and killed Afghan soldiers were brought out of the hydro-electric company's compound. Blood covered the Afghan soldiers who had carried their comrades out. A Ford Ranger belonging to the Afghan Army roared down the street toward the Italian Emergency medical clinic with the bodies in its bed, raising clouds of dust as it bounced down the potholed road and careened through the intersection.

When asked whether it was the Haqqani Network or the Taliban who were carrying out the attack, a member of the Ministry of Interior's Special Operations Team said, "There is no difference. They are all enemy. They are all on the same side, fighting us. They fight because the U.S. and NATO are here."

The elite soldier, hunkered down next to a wall, highlighted the predicament the Afghan government and people now face: many insurgents say they fight because of the presence of foreign forces, but if those forces leave before the Afghan military and police are prepared to take over security, then, many predict, even more fighting will erupt.

"What do you expect? We can hold the line for so long, but we need support.," the soldier said. "And the thing is that as soon as the Americans leave, Afghanistan will turn again into a center for terrorism. And you can already see it. These attacks are just psychological now, but when the Americans leave, there will be a physical presence of terrorists in this country. It will turn into a center for drug smuggling and al-Qaeda. This is the reality," he continued. "You foreigners are just like the Russians, you don't understand," he said, alluding to the civil war that engulfed the country after the Soviet Army's withdrawal and the collapse of the Communist-backed government soon after.

If the Afghan soldier's predictions bear out, history may be set to repeat itself.