As the sound of automatic weapons and rockets died down, hopefully not to resume soon in Kabul, the city went into the night without knowing the final outcome of today’s battles. Earlier during the day, Fabrizio Foschini and others at AAN could only listen to the sound of it coming through the wind, and hope that none of their friends were harmed. Now, as evening falls, it is time to draw a preliminary picture.
Starting close after 1pm, at least three major attacks rocked a beautiful late summer day in Kabul.
The first and longest attack originated in the vicinity of Abdul Haq roundabout, and it – or at least its effects – spread to the Shashdarak and Wazir Akbar Khan areas, home to many western embassies and foreign offices. The damage in these areas was mainly caused by several rockets, fired by members of a suicide commando who had taken shelter on top of a high-rise building under construction near the Abdul Haq roundabout, and who spent hours battling the police. Two hours later, around 15.00, while the fighting in Abdul Haq square was still raging, two more explosions hit Deh Mazang and Darulaman road in West Kabul. An additional single suicide bomber was apparently spotted and killed by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) while approaching a checkpoint on the Airport Road at 15.40.
During the afternoon, with the fighting still rampaging, the Taleban claimed paternity of the attacks. The website Shahamat posted a statement by a Taleban spokesman that can be found here*. The sound of an explosion resembling that of a rocket could be heard from the AAN office as late as 17.45, while later reports stated that more rockets were fired around 18.30 by the surviving members of the insurgent commando. The coming of darkness most probably only added to the difficulties and confusion. In fact, distant sounds of the battle raging were still heard at AAN well past midnight, with reportedly two of the original six-men commando still engaging the security forces.
The objective of the attacks seems clear. The two explosions in West Kabul targeted the Afghan Border Police (ABP) headquarters in Deh Mazang and Afghan National Police (ANP) 202 Shamshad corps headquarters on Darulaman road, near Lycee Habibia. Some police casualties were reported for both attacks, which were apparently suicide bombings (one ANP and two ABP respectively, plus an unknown number of injured civilians and servicemen). As for the complex attack that lasted for most of the afternoon and into the evening, its real dynamics and details are still all but clear. The ultimate target of the commando could have been any (or all) of the locations mentioned in the Taleban statement, that said its fighters ‘attacked the NATO’s ISAF HQ, US embassy and local and foreign intelligence agencies’. At least three rockets are said to have hit close to the US embassy compound, while at least one (unconfirmed) report points at insurgent attempts to breach the embassy’s outer security perimeter from different points (this matches other equally unconfirmed reports of more insurgents moving in the area, apart from those barricaded in the building under construction).
Be as it is, a Taleban attack inside Kabul in itself did not come as a big surprise, although its intensity and scope was unexpected. According to a generally accepted interpretation, the pattern of insurgent attacks inside Kabul has reached a frequency of around one attack in every three weeks. Special occasions or events can further add to this number. The present situation, with the anniversaries of last week, accounted for both eventualities, and many were waiting in trepidation for something to happen.
It is possible that the Taleban were not interested in carrying out large scale attacks on the anniversary of 9/11, as they may still have wanted to avoid the implication of being considered one and the same as, or very closely associated with, al-Qaeda. At the same time, the date was not overlooked by them, as it remains, according to the Taleban statement issued last Sunday (click here) ‘an event in which they (the Taleban) had no role whatsoever, but, using this as a pretext and a clout, the American colonialism shed blood of thousands of miserable and innocent Afghans’. It possibly also made sense for them, after the strike aimed at the British presence – in one of its softest expressions indeed (the British Council) – on Independence Day, to target what they consider the main force behind the foreign presence and the present Afghan government – the US.
The increased security measures by Afghan security forces during the last days had not been limited to the two anniversaries of Massud’s killing on 9/9 and the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. Police and the National Directorate of Security (NDS) had – apparently based on information of a specific threat – been actively searching vehicles of a particular description (4×4) in West Kabul yesterday, and had increased their presence significantly in many areas of the city centre last night, including in Wazir Akbar Khan, one of the areas struck by today’s attacks.
If early reports about the development of the conflict today turn out to be correct, it seems that the NDS and the ANP were able to identify and intercept at least one suicide attacker before he reached his destination (there is talk of a suicide bomber exploding himself inside a taxi, which matches the fact that one of the first two explosions heard was distinctively different from the following rockets). This would point towards a certain level of alertness on the part of the security forces – for the police searching the cars and the NDS having been aware of the threat – although it is a meager consolation, given the drawn-out conflict that ensued and the still unaccounted number of casualties (reports talked about 6 dead and 15 injured – among whom a cameramen of Afghan state TV – plus the attackers). And the swiftness of the insurgents in selecting a suitable location to engage the ANSF for long hours – a maybe ten-storey high building under construction is the dream of any sniper or rocket-lover – sounds premeditated.
As for completely preventing this kind of attacks, with the massive presence of foreigners and government offices spread in almost every part of the capital, it would prove an almost impossible task by all standards. Even if the more protected and secluded areas of Wazir Akbar Khan or Shahr-e Naw could attain a higher level of security – certainly at the cost of further reducing traffic mobility for ordinary citizens – there are no guarantees that the insurgents would not attack softer targets instead like supermarkets, administrative offices or lesser diplomatic sites.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was swift to describe the recent attack as a ‘test’ – maybe, coming from insurgents, ‘challenge’ could have been a better wording – for the Afghan security forces in the context of the transition of security in Afghanistan (see here). Leaving aside the fact that transition inside Kabul city is no new development and it has already been ‘tested’ by insurgents quite often, today’s attacks could also constitute a test for the relations between foreigners and Afghans. The possible perception among Afghan residents that the presence of foreigners is a catalyst for attacks, may lead to a growing conclusion that the problems related to their presence far outweigh the benefits.
Whether the Taleban aim to exploit such feelings and are possibly modifying their targeting to feed a more nationalist anti-foreign narrative remains to be seen. It is however unlikely that they will succeed in establishing a continuity between the current-day insurgents and past fighters against other invaders with attacks like today’s. With its outcome of civilian casualties – a rocket aimed at God knows where hit a schoolbus in Wazir Akbar Khan, killing or injuring five pupils – damaged buildings and disrupted normal life, it will remind the inhabitants of Kabul not of past heroes, but of something they know only too well: the urban civil war of the 90s of which many of them still bear the scars.
* In his usual bombastic style, Zabihullah Mujahed reminds readers of the ‘martyr attack’ in Sayyedabad district of Wardak two days ago, which according to him caused more than 200 deaths among ‘the US invaders’ (which could have theoretically been possible if the Taleban have indeed used the nine – 9! – tonnes of explosives that they elsewhere claimed had been involved in the attack). The only somewhat factual information that the spokesman gave regarding today’s attacks is that ‘the city is in turmoil and the people are running about in terror and shock.’
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020