KABUL — The compound of CARE International stood like a fortress, with narrow windows, safe rooms and massive sand-filled barriers surrounding its entrances. But on Wednesday, the day after being struck by a Taliban truck bomb and raked with gunfire for hours, it looked like a defeated ruin.
The blast tore apart two armored gates and left a deep crater outside the entrance. Cracks zigzagged across the walls, and the windows were blown out. The damage was so massive that in some places, only the skeleton of the four-story structure remained.
Inside, 42 trapped Afghan and foreign staff members had sought safety wherever they could, people with knowledge of the situation said Wednesday. Some were able to reach secure safe rooms. One hid inside a refrigerated closet for hours. Another slid under a shipping container in the yard. Eventually, CARE officials said, all were safely evacuated, and only six were wounded.
But for the charity — which has worked in Afghanistan for several decades, rebuilding irrigation wells and improving garbage collection, providing jobs for thousands of Afghans, and improving life in hundreds of war-damaged villages — the violent attack was a grim reminder of how good intentions can be tragically misjudged.
According to a spokesman for the Taliban, CARE was targeted because it was a haven for “foreign spies.” Commandos from the group occupied the bombed building and fought Afghan security forces for nearly 11 hours until officials said all the assailants were killed.
The attack came just hours after a twin Taliban bombing near the Defense Ministry killed at least 40 people and injured over 100. It was far from a new terrorist tactic; over the past decade, the Taliban has struck dozens of targets in Kabul, including the Serena Hotel, the national parliament, police facilities and guesthouses, a French school theater, a Lebanese restaurant and the independent election commission.
Yet this particular spate of violence seemed to mark a bold leap into urban warfare, showing the insurgents’ intent and ability to penetrate heavily populated commercial and official districts.
In the fashionable Shahr-e Now district, residents and witnesses to the CARE attack were still in shock Wednesday. The all-night gun battle outside their homes and shops reminded older people of the civil war in the early 1990s and terrified their children. It also shook public confidence in the government, which was forced to seal off central Kabul for much of the day.
“It is getting more dangerous here day by day,” said a teenage girl who gave her name as Shamsiya. “We have no peace of mind about the situation and security whether we are at home, school or in a bazaar. We fear an attack can happen any time. With so little mental security, you can’t learn or even live.”
A 17-year-old boy named Sohail, whose house is right next to CARE, said he was playing with a cellphone when the bomb blast knocked him on the floor. Dizzy, deafened and surrounded by broken glass, he said he rushed to the room shared by his younger brother and sister and carried them to the basement.
When the shooting began, he said, “We were very frightened and didn’t know what to do.” The family huddled in the basement all night, until their father was able to get them to a safer place. “It was the scariest moment of my life,” he said.
But it was not the first time CARE’s offices in Kabul had been destroyed. It happened 10 years ago — by a very different group of Afghans at a much more hopeful moment — when the Taliban insurgency was in its infancy. A new democracy was beginning to bear fruit, and CARE was busily involved in rebuilding the country after five years of oppressive Taliban rule.
Yet many Afghans resented the growing presence of American and NATO troops, and by extension the legions of Western civilians who had poured into their country to help. They were seen by some as secular interlopers who had come to take over and change their way of life.
One morning in May 2006, these confused emotions boiled over. An American military vehicle was involved in a traffic accident on the outskirts of Kabul. An angry crowd formed around the scene. More young men joined in and began marching through the city, cursing the foreigners and shouting.
When they reached Shahr-e Now, they spotted the large CARE sign and started to attack. The charity’s original building was a modest compound with virtually no security. It was built around a large grassy patio, dotted with rose gardens and tall pine trees. The mob broke in, ransacked the offices and set the garden on fire before moving on down the street.
Today, after 10 more years of war, almost all NATO troops have withdrawn, and the Taliban forces appear stronger than ever. The number of foreign aid and development projects has dwindled dramatically because of insecurity, and many establishments that catered to foreigners have been shut down.
CARE, which rebuilt its fortified offices a few blocks away after the 2006 rampage, has remained one of the few charities with a large, active operation in the center of Kabul. Its officials have made no public comment on Tuesday’s attack.
Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.