This time, the target was a much older and more established hotel that had experienced vertiginous swings of fortune during Afghanistan’s four decades of conflict, occupation and rebirth.
The Intercontinental, built in the 1960s, was once a fashionable institution with a grand piano in the lobby and a wine cellar in the basement. It was partly abandoned during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and badly damaged by multiple rocket attacks during the urban civil war that followed.
After the Taliban took power in 1996, the hotel was nearly deserted, with armed Taliban fighters in the lobby, cold water delivered in buckets to a handful of guests, and waiters serving spaghetti prepared in enormous empty kitchens. Once the Taliban was ousted in 2001, the hotel was gradually refurbished and became a popular site for social events, business conventions and political conclaves.
As the battle continued into the night, police blocked all roads leading to the hotel, which is perched on a steep slope covered with vegetation. Electricity was cut off in the immediate area, leaving the scene pitch dark as heavy gunfire echoed. Live Afghan television news coverage showed a dark scene punctuated by bright lights and sirens from police vehicles.
One guest told a local reporter he had been eating dinner with his family when he heard a loud explosion and gunfire. He then jumped from a first-floor window with his family and ran away.
There was heavy security throughout the capital Tuesday because of several major events: the governors’ conference, a meeting of international observers and a meeting of Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. officials. But the insurgents, who were extremely well prepared, managed to avoid the constant traffic stops and transport a considerable arsenal into the hotel, raising what were likely to be major questions about the ability of Afghan forces to protect the capital of 4 million.
In recent weeks, Taliban insurgents and suicide bombers have staged several attacks in Kabul after a long lull. Three suicide bombers tried to attack a local police facility this month, dying in the attempt. Another group invaded the headquarters of the Defense Ministry in April in an assault that left two soldiers dead.
There has also been a series of especially audacious or high-profile insurgent attacks outside the capital, including the beheading of a provincial leader, the assassination of a prominent police general and the suicide bombing of a rural hospital. Officials said the insurgents have been trying to undermine the planned transition from NATO to Afghan control of national defense.