KABUL — Taliban insurgents have intensified their attacks on this besieged capital with a flurry of brazen bombings and afternoon raids targeting foreigners and Afghans, bringing the war into this city in a way not seen in any other year since the radical Islamists were ousted from power.
The latest assault occurred Saturday, when three militants clutching guns and grenades, including one who wore an explosives-packed vest, stormed a compound inhabited by foreigners in the middle-class Karte-e-Saay enclave. In a frenzy of explosions and gunfire, two foreigners were killed and seven were taken prisoner, said Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi. All of the attackers died in clashes with Afghan security forces, and the hostages were eventually freed.
On Sunday, authorities raised the death toll to three foreigners — a South African aid worker and his two children — and an Afghan. And Kabul’s police chief, Gen. Mohammed Zahir, abruptly resigned amid the rising insecurity.
The dramatic increase in violence in Kabul, arguably the most heavily defended city in the nation, indicates the resilience of the Taliban, despite pronouncements by Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials that the insurgency has been weakened. As the annual fighting season nears an end in rugged, increasingly snow-covered mountain areas, the capital has become the new focal point of the conflict.
“The city is now the front line of the war,” wrote Esmatullah Kohsar, an Afghan journalist, in a tweet Saturday, noting that there had been 12 or 13 blasts in the past two weeks in Kabul.
With the presence of thousands of foreign troops and Western-trained Afghan security forces in Kabul, it’s highly unlikely that the Taliban will recapture the city. But the attacks could destabilize a key American ally and pose additional threats to U.S. and NATO forces as they shut down bases and withdraw most troops by the end of the year. In 2015, a large number of the remaining foreign forces will be based in Kabul, including at least 1,000 American security personnel at the U.S.Embassy.
Last week, a British citizen belonging to his embassy’s civilian security team was killed in a suicide bombing in east Kabul.
During much of the 13-year war, this sprawling, oatmeal-colored city was insulated from the violence that gripped the core fighting regions in the country’s south and east. With a network of checkpoints and a heavy military presence, Kabul didn’t suffer the constant suicide attacks and car bombings that paralyzed the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, for years.
But in recent weeks, the Taliban has gone after Afghanistan’s symbols of influence, including Kabul’s police chief and an outspoken women’s rights activist, as well as foreigners working at aid agencies and embassies. Scores of Afghan civilians have been killed or injured. Fear swirls around the capital in way it hasn’t in years.
Residents have begun calling a main road the “Valley of Death” because of the number of suicide bombings there. Some aid agencies and firms have flown their foreign staff out of Kabul, concerned that insurgents could target them.
“It has been two weeks now, and there practically hasn’t been a single day without a suicide attack in Kabul,” said Hamidullah Jan, a 35-year-old nurse at Istiqlal Hospital in the capital. “When I leave home, I do not know if I will come back alive or not. It is a very scary situation.”
By some estimates, the total number of attacks in Kabul is already more than double that of last year. According to figures compiled by Matthew Henman, manager of London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, a military analysis group, there were 80 attacks this year in Kabul as of mid-November.
That’s the highest number since the group started compiling a comprehensive database in 2009, Henman told the Stars and Stripes newspaper. And though the company doesn’t have complete data for the earlier period, Henman said he was almost certain that attacks in Kabul were fewer than current totals in each year since 2001, when the Taliban regime was ousted by the U.S.-led military operation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The violence in Kabul has been escalating since the inauguration Sept. 29 of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat who has aligned the country firmly with the United States and its allies. One of his first acts was to sign a bilateral security pact, or BSA, allowing roughly 12,000 U.S. and coalition troops to remain past the end of the year. That has infuriated the Taliban, which seeks a complete withdrawal of foreign forces.
“They are trying to destroy what achievements we have so far,” said Sediq Sediqqi, the country’s Interior Ministry spokesman, referring to the Taliban. “They are trying to launch these attacks to show that even if we sign the BSA, there will be no security.”
Saturday’s attack was at least the 11th assault in the capital in a little over two weeks, the violence coinciding with two pivotal decisions that have altered the military landscape heading into next year. On Nov. 23, Afghanistan’s parliament approved the security pact. The Obama administration also decided to expand the U.S. military role next year to include launching combat operations against the Taliban and providing air support to Afghan’s security forces.
The Taliban could be retaliating for those two decisions, analysts say. The attacks threaten to overshadow Ghani’s visit this week to a donor conference in London, where he will seek billions of dollars in aid to help Afghanistan’s battered economy.
Afghan officials note that the rise in violence here coincides with a call for jihad, or holy war, in Afghanistan earlier this month by Fazlur Rehman, head of a pro-Taliban Pakistani political party. “There is no doubt that these statements could be behind these kind of attacks,” Sediqqi said. “These kind of statements help the Taliban to recruit more people.”
Even as the Taliban launches assaults in Kabul, it is also battling in some traditional war zones. Late Friday night, insurgents raided an Afghan army outpost in southern Helmand province, killing at least 14 Afghan soldiers by the next morning. The Taliban was also fighting for a third day Saturday against Afghan army troops at Camp Bastion, a former British base in Helmand that was handed over to the Afghans last month.
In Kabul, the insurgents’ recent attacks have included dispatching a suicide bomber into the heavily fortified Kabul police headquarters, an assault that targeted the police chief but killed a senior aide. On Thursday night, Taliban fighters stormed a compound in a tightly guarded diplomatic enclave next to the office of an Arlington, Va.-based aid agency. A gunfight erupted in which three attackers were killed and a Nepalese guard was wounded.
Hours earlier, the Taliban suicide bomber had killed the British Embassy worker and five Afghans on Kabul-Jalalabad Road — the so-called “Valley of Death.”
That’s where Naveed Naseri’s shop is located. His parents have begged him to stay away from the area. A few of his friends have stopped going to work there, he said. But he can’t afford to.
“The attack terrified me, but I have no choice,” said Naseri, 25. “I am the breadwinner in the family. I have to work.”