Assault in central Kabul leaves residents angry and fearful

A man picks through teapots in the shopping center that was destroyed by fire Monday as security forces battled the attackers.
A man picks through teapots in the shopping center that was destroyed by fire Monday as security forces battled the attackers. (Farzana Wahidy/associated Press)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

KABUL -- In the rooftop ruins of an electronics market Tuesday, overlooking a plaza with the presidential palace just beyond, a shaken security guard pointed out three pools of blood amid spent shells and chunks of fallen plaster on the charred carpet.

It was there that three suicide commandos, part of a Taliban squad that tried to attack multiple buildings in the heart of the Afghan capital early Monday, blew themselves up after a three-hour firefight. Officials said the attack also killed two civilians and three members of the security forces.

"We don't care about the damage they did, but it was terrible to see the fear and panic, the adults trampling on children as they ran," said Hasibullah Khan, 22. "Every time there is another attack, we lose a little more faith in our government."

Afghan and U.S. officials praised the brave response by local security forces, who battled at least 10 Taliban gunmen. The death toll was much lower than in some previous Taliban assaults in the city, which some analysts said was a sign of improved government defenses.

But this assessment contrasted sharply with the angry comments of residents and merchants, who poked through piles of singed cloth, charred teapots and melted hangers in a shopping center that was destroyed by fire as security forces fought the militants. "We feel shame that our government was too weak to defend the capital, shame that even the troops from 36 nations could not protect us," said Abdul Wahid, 43, whose clothing shop was burned to ashes. "We used to feel safe because we were so near the presidential palace. Now we just feel scared."

Psychologically, the battle seemed to leave residents more shaken than previous attacks. In some of those cases, assailants had targeted the same buildings, but none had gone after so many buildings at once or some so close to the seat of power.

The high-decibel firefight sent thousands fleeing and ignited a five-story market, where smoke billowed for hours. By Tuesday morning, the sidewalk vendors and beggars had returned to their posts, but the mood on the streets was edgy and grim. "When I heard the first explosion, I ran across the Kabul River and stood on the other side all day, watching the fire," said Mazullah, 36, whose clothing shop was wiped out. "They wanted to show the world they could invade and destroy Kabul, and it looked like they had."

Residents were also incredulous that the attackers could have penetrated so deeply into the city, reaching within one block of the presidential palace. To do so, they had to evade multiple checkpoints and vehicle searches, which clog commuter traffic every day.

The political mood was already sour and uncertain. The attack came as President Hamid Karzai, reelected last summer in a fraud-plagued poll, was inside the fortified palace, attempting to swear in a group of new cabinet officials after parliament had rejected most of his first choices.

The attack also closely followed a visit by Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was here in part to promote the coming U.S. military and civilian buildup, intended to overwhelm Taliban forces and revive the war-battered economy.

But many Afghans remain suspicious and resentful of the U.S. and NATO military presence, and some asked why the thousands of foreign troops -- mostly stationed in rural combat outposts -- were unprepared to help defend Kabul.

"What is the use of these soldiers from so many countries when they can't even stop a few boys in suicide vests," said Wahid. "Our religion teaches peace, but others use it to make war on us. Will nobody stop them?"

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