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Kabul Briefly Paralyzed by Bold Militant Assault

January 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Afghan capital was paralyzed for hours Monday as militants laid siege to Kabul, detonating explosives, hurling grenades and engaging security forces in a fierce gun fight.
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MARGARET WARNER: Explosions rocked the city this morning, and smoke billowed into the sky, as Taliban gunmen, some in suicide vests, struck the heart of the capital with a series of brazen, well-coordinated attacks.

They detonated bombs at multiple targets in a well-secured area of government ministries, shops and hotels, and did so with deadly force. This Iranian reporter was covering the carnage, but, moments later, at an in-town shopping mall, civilians were hurriedly evacuated as Afghan police took on the militants who’d seized it.

The fighting raged citywide for nearly five hours. Today’s grisly attacks came just as Afghan President Karzai was swearing in members of his new Cabinet. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy to the region, who just left Kabul hours earlier, told reporters in India that he wasn’t surprised.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan: They’re ruthless. The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack, nor will they succeed. But we can expect this sort of thing on a regular basis.

MARGARET WARNER: The Taliban claimed responsibility for today’s attacks, telling the Associated Press they had sent 20 militants to do the job. It was the militants’ answer to Karzai’s recently renewed offer of reconciliation with the Taliban, said Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

J. ALEXANDER THIER, U.S. Institute of Peace: The Taliban spokesperson said today, in claiming responsibility for the attack, that they were trying to undermine or disrupt the notion that the Taliban could be bought off, that they could be lured off the battlefield. And, instead, to demonstrate that they are united and that they are committed to their cause, they sent these suicide bombers into the heart of Kabul.

MARGARET WARNER: NATO officials pinned the attacks on the Haqqani Network, an al-Qaida-linked Taliban faction. It’s also implicated in last month’s suicide bombing inside a U.S. outpost that killed seven CIA personnel.

At a news conference later in Kabul, the country’s intelligence chief struck a defiant note.

AMRULLAH SALEH, chief of Afghan intelligence services: Today’s attack was in no way a success for the enemy. They cannot claim credit for entering into a shopping mall and just blindly shooting at the civilians. That will further strengthen the will and determination of our people to know what they are. And that will rally more support for the Afghan security forces.

MARGARET WARNER: The assault not only marred the Karzai cabinet swearing-in; it came just 10 days before a major international conference on Afghanistan in London, where Karzai hoped to demonstrate greater competence in governing and security. Instead, the world saw that, despite the ongoing surge of more U.S. forces, the Taliban can still plan and execute attacks at will.

Retired Colonel David Lamm, the former chief of staff of coalition operations in Afghanistan, said, even though just a dozen people died, the damage is far greater.

COL. DAVID LAMM (RET.), U.S. Army: If you’re Taliban, and your tactic is to show that it’s a rather inept government, that it really can’t secure parts even inside the capital, from a psychological perspective, this is a — it’s a worrisome attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, a spokesman for International Security Assistance Forces in Kabul praised their Afghan counterparts for acting aggressively to contain the attacks.

BRIG. GEN. ERIC TREMBLAY, International Security Assistance Force: At the end, it demonstrates, by the way the Afghan national security forces are dealing with the operation, their skills and the level of experience that they have to be able to deal with the event, take charge, and neutralize the insurgents in order to bring security back to Kabul.

MARGARET WARNER: But Lamm said, the fact the Afghans hadn’t been able to neutralize the attackers before they struck, despite intelligence warnings, was worrisome.

COL. DAVID LAMM: While they reacted well, their intelligence prep and their ability to interdict this attack was less than satisfactory.

From the perspective of the national security forces in Afghanistan, they’re going to have to really take another second look at their intelligence, even now inside the capital, where intelligence had been pretty good on interdicting these sorts of things.

MARGARET WARNER: A member of the Afghan parliament echoed that sentiment.

SHUKRIA BARAKZAI, Afghan Parliament: In the meantime, the government of Afghanistan, I think it shows that still we are not really cooperating well with each other.

MARGARET WARNER: Late today, the Afghan security ministry said at least seven attackers were dead. The city, with the assistance of NATO forces, was secure, but it had the feel of a capital in lockdown.