KABUL — Insurgents attacked cities across eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, including at least three prominent targets in Kabul, a rare coordinated effort spanning some of the country’s most important population centers. The Taliban promptly asserted responsibility for the string of suicide bombings and firefights, calling the strikes the beginning of its spring offensive.
By midnight, as the attacks continued for an 11th hour, at least 14 police officers and nine civilians had been wounded, according to the Interior Ministry. Western officials said the swift actions of Afghan security forces kept the incidents from causing more casualties.
Early Monday, Afghan-led forces fired one rocket-propelled grenade after another in an effort to defeat insurgents holed up in one building in the capital and another near parliament, the Associated Press reported.
The attacks underscored the insurgency’s ability to penetrate the country’s most fortified cities with trucks full of rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. In the capital, insurgents held out for hours, firing at Afghan and Western security and diplomatic installations. As the United States prepares to withdraw its combat troops by 2014, such attacks place stress on a brittle security situation that the NATO-trained Afghan army and police will soon inherit.
From their perch on the eighth floor of an unfinished commercial building in central Kabul, insurgents aimed rockets and rifles at NATO’s military headquarters, only a few hundred yards away. In another attempted siege, they struck the Afghan parliament.
In statements to the media, the Taliban called the day’s attacks a prelude to future violence. The number of attacks across the country has picked up considerably in recent weeks, officials have noted, as fighters return from Pakistan.
“This is a message that our spring offensive has begun,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, who said Sunday’s primary targets were Western military and diplomatic installations.
“The Taliban are really good at issuing statements. Less good at actually fighting,” Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Crocker suggested that the Haqqani network — a group affiliated with the Taliban, but with its own autonomous leadership — had probably planned the attack from havens in western Pakistan.
The initial blasts, which seemed to occur almost simultaneously, struck at least seven locations across eastern Afghanistan, including three targets in Kabul and a NATO base in the city of Jalalabad. But by Sunday night, the casualty toll remained lower than many initially expected, drawing Western commendation for the actions of Afghan security forces.
The Afghan security forces “were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained,” Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
Less than an hour after the attack began, members of the Afghan Crisis Response Unit and their NATO trainers entered the building from which insurgents were firing. There were two large blast holes visible in the facade of the Kabul Star Hotel, frequented by Westerners and wealthy Afghans, located just across the street.
A few miles away, another group of insurgents occupied a building across from the parliament, as well as another construction site, from which they targeted nearby Western military installations.
“Armed insurgents, including some suicide bombers, have taken control of buildings in these areas,” said Sediq Sediqi, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
At least one lawmaker, Mohammad Hamid Lalai Hamidzai of Kandahar, fired back at insurgents from the roof of the parliament building.
“I have four of my armed bodyguards. We are using my personal guns, and we have exchanged fire with the attackers,” he said by telephone.
Although the Taliban has successfully executed spectacular attacks in the capital before — including the protracted attack on the U.S. Embassy in September — insurgents have rarely attacked so many disparate targets simultaneously.
Even if the attacks’ consequences were relatively muted, the insurgency’s ability to navigate the security structures in and around Kabul, as well as other provincial capitals where attacks occurred, strikes at the heart of one of NATO’s greatest fears — that the Taliban will shift its efforts away from the battlefield and focus on destabilizing the country with a string of spectacular, urban attacks. Much of Western military strategy in restive eastern Afghanistan hinges on keeping insurgents away from the capital.
In addition to the attacks in Jalalabad and Kabul, insurgents attacked a public university in Paktia province and Afghan installations in Logar province. Some of the attackers wore women’s clothes to conceal their faces and packed unmarked trucks and vans with explosives and weapons.
In a statement released Sunday night, NATO played down the significance of the incidents, calling them “largely ineffective.”
But well after midnight, the fighting in Kabul still appeared to be intense. NATO helicopters flew over residential neighborhoods while gunfire was exchanged below.
By early evening Sunday, Sediqi said, Afghan police had killed 19 insurgents. The National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence branch, announced that two would-be suicide bombers had been detained before they could reach their targets.
Through the night, crowds remained near the unfinished eight-story building in Kabul, including workers who fled the construction site when the violence began. Some of them had colleagues and relatives still stuck in the building and adjoining shops. One of those workers, Ali Jan, 37, had been communicating by phone with his brother, who had been stuck inside for seven hours. Shortly after sunset, the phone went dead.
“I’m worried,” Jan said, “but my brother told me he was in a safe room. He told me he would be okay.”
Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.