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Brazen Attack on Kabul Hotel Raises New Questions on Afghan Security

June 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Tuesday night's spectacular Taliban attack on a landmark Kabul hotel popular with Westerners shook any semblance of calm in the Afghan capital. Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable joins Margaret Warner from Kabul for an update on the attack and the security situation as President Obama looks to draw down U.S. troop levels.
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MARGARET WARNER: And to last night’s spectacular strike on a Kabul landmark. The Taliban attack shook any semblance of calm in the Afghan capital.

The elaborately planned attack turned the Intercontinental Hotel into a burning hulk. A squad of some eight or nine Taliban fighters armed with suicide vests and grenade launchers staged a nighttime assault. More than five hours later, nearly a dozen hotel guests and staff lay dead, and the attackers did, too.

Their target, known as the Inter-Con, sits atop a saddle-backed ridge dividing Kabul, about five miles from the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan presidential palace. Around 10:00 p.m. local time, authorities say, the insurgents blasted or shot their way past the first checkpoint at the bottom of a steep access road. They breached a second checkpoint at the top and broke through the front-door security screening area into the hotel itself.

Frightened guests scattered or hid as Afghan security forces responded. Afghan police reportedly got there first, sealing off the surrounding area and cutting power to the hotel. Wild gunfire and explosions echoed through the night, but the standoff didn’t end until after 3:00 a.m., when NATO helicopters swooped in and killed three gunmen on the roof, touching off a fire.

DAOUD AMIN, Kabul deputy police chief (through translator): It has been cleared totally. We deployed our forces back to make sure everything is OK.

MARGARET WARNER: The Taliban claimed responsibility while the fight was under way. But it remained unclear how the attackers managed to defeat the supposedly extensive security at the hotel.

Today, an Afghan security agency spokesman said current renovation work at the hotel might offer a clue.

LUTFULLAH MASHAL, Afghan National Directorate for Security: The insurgents are using every means to infiltrate into tight security areas. They might have camouflaged themselves as laborers, as technicians, or whatever.

MARGARET WARNER: The brazen assault came just as high-profile Afghan officials were gathering for a conference on transitioning to Afghan security control, as U.S. and NATO forces draw down.

In a statement today, President Hamid Karzai insisted that, “Such incidents will not stop us from transitioning security of our country.”

At his White House news conference, President Obama said, while attacks like last night’s will continue, the Afghans are already showing they’re up to the challenge.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Kabul has been largely policed by Afghan forces for quite some time. And they have done a reasonably good job. Kabul is much safer than it was, and Afghan forces in Kabul are much more capable than they were.

MARGARET WARNER: The president touted the training of Afghan forces as making possible the U.S. drawdown he announced last week.

BARACK OBAMA: We’ve got an additional 100,000 Afghan troops, both army and police, that have been trained as a consequence of this surge. And that is going to give the Afghans more capacity to defend themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: The withdrawal is slated to remove, by the end of next summer, all 33,000 additional U.S. troops that Mr. Obama ordered there at the end of 2009. Some 70,000 will remain.

And for more on the attack and what it bodes for the transition to Afghan security control, we turn to Pam Constable of The Washington Post. I spoke to her a short while ago in Kabul.

Pam Constable, thanks for joining us.

You have been up to that hotel, the Intercontinental, today. What are the eyewitnesses from last night telling you about what it was like?

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: There was panic. There was horror. There was chaos. There was shock.

You know, I talked to one elderly Muslim cleric who spent five hours hiding under a table and behind a pillar while people around him were being shot. There were scenes of mass confusion and chaos, lots of loud noises, gunfire, unexplained explosions, some of which were actually the suicide bombers blowing themselves up. Others were coming from, you know, grenade launchers.

You know, these guys had a very heavy arsenal with them. So, this was, you know, a very determined and brutal assault. And you had hundreds of people at a — you know, late night, enjoying the evening, having dinner, getting ready for a conference, and then, all of a sudden it seemed like, you know, World War III.

MARGARET WARNER: And what more have you been able to find out today about how they managed to the breach security there and get in, in the first place?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s still somewhat of a mystery. The government officials don’t really have an explanation for it. And it raises a lot of questions about their own ability to secure the city, which we can talk about in a minute.

But, as the introduction suggested, they were very well prepared. They had a lot of explosives with — explosives with them. They had a truck that was able to breach both of the entry points. And this is steep — a hotel at the top of a steep hill. They were able to get through the first, get through second, blew up the truck at the entrance to the hotel, and just went in shooting, and just shot every guard in sight and kept going.

But that’s just the very end of a long and, I’m sure, very careful planning process on their part.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how well did the Afghan security forces respond? What have you learned about that?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I mean, I think — I think they probably responded as well as could be hoped or expected.

There were already quite a few security forces on the scene, because there was this big conference coming up on the transition, and a number of Afghan officials from around the country were staying at the hotel. Many of them also had numerous bodyguards of their own. So, there was lots of firepower around.

But, you know, the Afghan security forces, especially the police, are not well-known for being highly organized or quickly reactive. I think it took them some time to figure out how to respond.

And you had these guys fanning throughout the hotel, some of them with suicide vests, some of them with heavy weapons — or I guess all of them with heavy weapons. And I think there was probably some delay in getting organized, because it was more than five hours, between 10:30 and really up — really up until 3:00 in the morning, they were still roaming the hotel. They were still shooting people. They were still causing mayhem, and the forces were really not able to repel them.

And, finally — and I think probably reluctantly — they did call in NATO, and it was that — those NATO choppers that — that finally eliminated the last two terrorists on the roof.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you say reluctantly?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, because, number one, it’s a matter of great national pride that the Afghan security forces can do the job. They have gotten lots of money, lots of training from the West.

And, as you have discussed before in the introduction, they’re about to take over. I mean, part of the deal is that, with this transition and this drawdown of troops, as well as civilian people, in Afghanistan that, beginning in these seven areas, including Kabul and then gradually extending across the rest of the country within the next three years, Afghan security and defense will be 100 percent in Afghan hands.

And that’s something that the government of President Karzai has repeatedly said and said again today will happen no matter what: We’re going step up to the plate. We’re going to do it right.

But I — as today’s — or — sorry — as last night’s attack showed, that may not be as easy as people think. And I think’s a great, great deal of concern. Along with that national pride, along with that desire to make it happen, I think there’s a great, great deal of concern about what will happen to Kabul and the rest of the country when the Western forces do leave.

MARGARET WARNER: And, as you said, there are these seven areas already — and I think we have a map, everything from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, all the way down to the capital of Helmand in the south and Kabul — that are supposed to transition, what, next month to full Afghan control.

What would you say the security situation is today, right now, in those areas? Is it improving or is it deteriorating?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s a varied picture. I visited Laghman Province last week to report. That’s one of the areas that’s going to be transitioned, if that’s a verb.

And there was a lot of mixed feeling there. A lot of people, again, would like to get the Western troops out, but are not quite sure what is going to happen if they leave. Most people said it’s going to be fine in the provincial capital. That’s well enough guarded.

But once you get out into the outlying areas, rural areas nearer to the Pakistan border, where Taliban have been known to come in and roam freely and other insurgents, people are very, very worried that those areas are going to become essentially off-limits to security forces and even to governing authorities, which is — that’s a slippery slope, because when you get districts that are not governed, then that creates more of a momentum for the Taliban and the other insurgents.

We also had a reporting from Herat, where people have been very proud of their ability to defend that city for a very long time. But just very recently, there was a terrible attack on the Italian military and civilian aid mission out there.

So, really, I think it’s a very mixed picture. There are certain places, Bamyan in the north, I think people feel fairly confident will go well. But Lashkar Gah in the south, Helmand is still a strong redoubt of insurgency. So, I don’t think anybody is expressing great confidence that these early transitions will necessarily go well.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Pamela Constable of The Washington Post, thanks for — thanks for staying up late to talk to us. And stay safe.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: OK. Thank you very much, Margaret.