By Javed Hamdard, Pamela Constable and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 12, 2009
KABUL, Feb. 11 -- A trio of closely coordinated attacks left at least 20 people dead and 54 wounded in the Afghan capital Wednesday morning, after separate teams of gunmen and bombers targeted two downtown government ministries and a corrections administration office in the suburbs. The attacks created panic in the crowded city center until security forces were able to restore control after a four-hour battle.
All eight attackers were also killed.
It was the worst violence in Kabul since July, when a suicide bomber destroyed the Indian Embassy, killing more than 60 people. Analysts said the audacious assaults seemed timed to test the resolve of Afghan and U.S. officials as the Obama administration debates a new strategy for Afghanistan and its recently named special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, is scheduled to visit this week.
A spokesman for the Islamist Taliban insurgency asserted responsibility for the attacks, telling the Associated Press they were in response to the poor treatment of prisoners in Afghan custody. The revived militia has been waging a brutal campaign of violence and intimidation against the Afghan government and what it calls the "foreign occupation" by U.S. and NATO forces.
In the past year, more than 4,000 people have died in insurgent-related violence, and there have been a dozen major attacks by suicide bombers against military and civilian targets in the Kabul region since March. The capital is heavily guarded, with blast barriers on many streets and police patrolling everywhere, but residents describe a rapidly deteriorating sense of security.
The Obama administration is gearing up to send as many as 30,000 fresh troops to Afghanistan in coming months, nearly doubling the number stationed there in a major effort to quell the insurgency, win over the populace and bring stability to the country. But there has been increasing friction between the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has denounced U.S. bombings of villages where insurgents may be hiding, and who has threatened to turn to Russia for support.
In Kabul, the most dramatic scenes unfolded at the Justice Ministry. Employees cowered in their locked offices as gunfire erupted, and crowds fled in the surrounding, traffic-clogged streets.
Officials said five men armed with guns and suicide vests killed one guard at the entrance, then entered and began firing on guards and employees throughout the four-story building. Witnesses said some people jumped from upper floors to escape.
Although the death toll was much lower, many people here immediately compared the attack to the terrorist siege in the Indian city of Mumbai in November, when a highly trained squad of attackers entered the port city by boat and wreaked havoc for three days, striking at luxury hotels and other buildings and killing more than 170 people.
Afghan officials pointed to Pakistan as the source of Wednesday's violence. Intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh told journalists the attackers had sent cellphone messages to Pakistan just as they entered the Justice Ministry, "calling for the blessing of their mastermind." Other reports said some witnesses had overheard several of the attackers speaking Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Indian officials have also blamed the Mumbai assault on groups based in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit, said he had not seen Saleh's remarks and could not comment.
While the reconstituted Taliban insurgents have been stepping up their war against the Afghan government since 2006, other Islamist militant groups have been waging a similar campaign in the border areas of neighboring Pakistan, and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed Pakistani religious groups and intelligence agencies for fomenting the violence.
In a separate attack Wednesday, an official of a secular political party was killed by a remote-controlled bomb in Peshawar, the major Pakistani city in the volatile northwest region bordering Afghanistan. The attack occurred as Holbrooke arrived in the city on the third day of his first visit to Pakistan as regional envoy.
At the Afghan Justice Ministry yesterday, a clerk named Ghulam Sakhi said he was in his office when "suddenly huge gunfire started."
"When I came out, there were dead and injured bodies but no one to help," he said. "I saw the bombers with their Kalashnikovs and grenades. They were talking on their cellphones in Pashto and asking someone what they should do next." Pashto is spoken by ethnic Pashtuns in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.
As soon as the group burst into the building about 10 a.m., they began "killing whoever came in front of them," said Fazul Rahman, another ministry employee.
Afghan police arrived quickly and escorted employees out of the building, which was then stormed by army commandos and other security forces. Officials said that one or two attackers were killed right away but that it took four hours for commando teams to track down several others inside. Intermittent gunfire could be heard inside until the last attacker was dead.
In the two other Kabul attacks, a single suicide bomber tried to enter the downtown Education Ministry but was shot dead outside. At the same time, a pair of suicide bombers struck a prison administration facility in the residential neighborhood of Khair Khana, killing several people before being killed themselves. It was not immediately clear whether the attackers had been shot by security forces or had detonated their explosives and caused their own deaths.
Although security forces responded to the attacks swiftly, officials expressed alarm that the assailants had been able to bring weapons and explosives into the Afghan capital, where police routinely stop and search vehicles at traffic circles after dark and guard all entry points into the city of 3.5 million.
Officials and residents expressed grave concern about the country's decaying security situation and the resurgence of the Taliban as an organized force. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said at a news conference that he was extremely concerned that weapons and explosive devices were still coming into Kabul. "We have to work hard to stop this," he said.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister under Karzai who now lives in Washington, said he believed the attackers "wanted to act ahead of the new U.S. surge and express themselves very violently, to create fear and mistrust of both the Afghan government and the international forces. People in Kabul are very concerned and questioning whether anyone can protect the country now."
The hard-line Taliban militia, which ruled most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, was overthrown by a U.S.-led assault. But despite the presence of thousands of foreign troops and the training of a new national army, the insurgents have been gaining ground across the country, capitalizing on government failures and fears of foreign occupation.
"Will more American troops be able to stop this? Never," said a shaken Sakhi, the clerk who escaped the Justice Ministry and watched from the street while commando teams raided the building. "The more the number of troops increase, the more insecurity will increase. The future of Afghanistan is getting worse day by day."
Constable and Schneider reported from Washington.