Heavily Guarded Kabul No Longer Immune from Violence

Afghan men clean up the debris after a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 16, 2013. Six people died in the attack. AP Photo
Afghan men clean up the debris after a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 16, 2013. Six people died in the attack. AP Photo

KABUL, Afghanistan — Karim Khan was stocking his shelves with fresh bread early one morning when a blast blew out the windows of his bakery in east Kabul and knocked him to the ground.

Insurgents had detonated a truck bomb before storming a foreign contractor complex 300 meters away, killing two Afghan security guards. That was Nov. 18. It was the fourth attack in the Afghan capital that week, and it wouldn’t be the last.

“The Taliban can attack any part of Kabul in the presence of hundreds of thousands of foreign and Afghan security people,” Khan said. “What are the security people doing?”

Kalashnikov-toting private guards hired by businesses pat down and stand watch over patrons at Kabul’s restaurants, grocery stores and gyms. The capital is home to the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan Army, intelligence services and the National Police.

Despite the presence of thousands of Western-trained security forces and a nationwide military strategy aimed at securing major urban centers, the insurgents still manage to carry out attacks on the capital.

For much of the war, attacks in Kabul had been rare compared with Baghdad, leading to jokes about the “kabubble,” where foreigners and Afghans were largely insulated from the violence of the south and east.

So far this year, however, the number of attacks in Kabul are double those in 2013, and they may set a record, according to figures compiled by Matthew Henman, manager of London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

“The 80 attacks in Kabul recorded so far this year is the highest since 2009, from when we consider our database to be comprehensive,” he said in mid-November. It was unlikely, he said, that there were more attacks between 2001 and 2008.

The attacks are part of a trend of the Taliban stepping up pressure on government forces as the U.S. and its allies speed the pullout of combat forces. On Friday, The Associated Press reported, an Afghan official said six Afghan soldiers were killed in an attack on the former NATO base in Helmand province, which the coalition handed over to the Afghans last month.

In Kabul, several recent attacks have penetrated the tight inner rings of security around neighborhoods where foreigners work and live. Even the heavily guarded, upscale Kabul neighborhood that is home to foreign embassies and missions — a kind of fortress city within a larger one — isn’t safe.

In late October, two blasts, minutes apart, shook buildings as twin rockets sailed over the city’s defenses and crashed into the protected area. Sirens at the U.S. Embassy were soon blaring.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day, the Taliban claimed responsibility for two attacks. One, on a foreign guest house in an area near the U.S. and other embassies, involved a suicide bomber and gunmen who tried to storm the building. An hours-long gunbattle ensued and police said three attackers were killed. A Nepalese guard was wounded. Earlier in the day, a massive car bomb attack on a British convoy in the east of the city, killed six people including a British security guard. A few days earlier, an insurgent attack killed two American soldiers, including a command sergeant major who trained Afghan forces.

“Attacks around the capital have increased significantly this year, in part because of the flurry of violence that surrounded the elections,” said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who is based in Kabul. “Insurgents took advantage of the media spotlight during the campaign period to launch high-profile attacks, particularly in the first three months of 2014.”

The attacks continued, even after the disputed vote was resolved with the inauguration in September of new President Ashraf Ghani and the naming of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as a chief executive officer in a power-sharing government.

On the morning of the inauguration, Sept 29, a magnetic bomb, claimed by the Taliban, sheared off the side of a government jeep, injuring the driver. School children later crowded the site, watching blood drain into an open ditch.

Over the next 48 hours, a series of suicide bombings killed more than a dozen Afghan soldiers and civilians. The Associated Press counted 10 attacks in the capital during Ghani’s first month in office.

Among attacks in November were two aimed at high-profile targets. On Nov. 9, a Taliban bomber carrying a bundle of official-looking documents managed to bluff his way to the third floor of the Kabul Police headquarters and detonate his explosive vest outside the police chief’s office. One officer was killed and several others were injured, while the police chief was unhurt.

A week later, another suicide bomber killed three people in the capital in an attempt to assassinate a prominent female lawmaker.

“The point of these attacks is to try to make everyone frightened and strike at the heart of the city and the government,” said Kate Clark, a Kabul-based analyst. “It’s a different war in Kabul than in the rest of the country.”

Following the Thanksgiving Day attacks, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi echoed that sentiment. “The message they want to send is clear — security is not easy to come by,” he said.

In far-flung rural provinces, the Taliban have massed in hundreds for open battle with Afghan security forces. They’ve succeeded against isolated ANA posts, overrunning thinly manned police checkpoints and even briefly threatening government control of district centers.

In contrast, Kabul remains a heavily defended city, with a substantial part of the Afghan army stationed in and around it. The Taliban can’t realistically hope to retake the capital any time soon — and that may not be their intent. They have managed to remind residents that they are far from safe and to raise questions about the new government’s ability to ensure security after the bulk of international forces leave at the end of the year.

After 13 years of war, American and allied troops are preparing to shift from an active combat role to an advise-and-assist mission called Resolute Support at the end of December.

Insurgents have been staging attacks on foreign bases across the country while international forces are packing up to leave, hoping to underscore the Taliban’s claim to have driven out foreign troops.

“After a strong jihad by the mujahedeen, the foreign enemy is defeated” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman told Stars and Stripes. “Foreign forces left their bases in the countryside and are now in Kabul. That is why there is an increase in our attacks in Kabul.”

Gen. Dawlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said the Afghan police are responsible for protecting the capital against such attacks. A division of the Afghan National Army is available in Kabul to address security issues when needed, he said.

Hashmatullah Stanakzai, spokesman for Kabul police, said the Taliban are hoping to “avenge” their failure to disrupt the disputed presidential election and the recent signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement, which lays out the terms for U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan past this year.

He also pointed to a recent internal security report that shows the Taliban are now focusing their efforts on just six provinces, including Kabul’s eponymous province, down from 22.

“We can’t foil all the attacks on Kabul. It will take time until we get more modern equipment for checking the vehicles and getting intelligence information” he said. “But we are committed to fight the insurgents and try to foil their attacks as much as we can. We have foiled many attacks in Kabul recently.”

U.S. military officials acknowledge the challenges facing the security forces they have trained but say they are confident the Afghans can secure their country and its capital in coming years.

The Afghan National Security Forces ”are becoming more capable and stronger each day,” said Lt. Cmdr. Justin K. Hadley, an ISAF spokesman. “It is important to put the Kabul attacks in perspective. While there has been an increase in IED attacks in Kabul province in 2014 compared to 2013, the number of effective attacks [claiming casualties] has remained static.”

In years past, Kabul’s security forces would sometimes find themselves in prolonged fights with attacking insurgents. More recent attacks often begin and end quickly, with security forces swiftly killing attackers.

“We are not apprehensive about ending the combat mission,” Hadley said.

About 9,800 U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan next year, but the precise nature of their future advise and assist mission remains unclear and dependent on the Taliban, who continue to assert themselves.

The New York Times reported recently that President Barack Obama had quietly expanded the role American forces could play in 2015, allowing their participation in direct combat against the Taliban in some instances and continued close air support of Afghan forces by American aircraft.

Washington’s apparent concern for the nation’s future security is shared by foreign workers and the local populace.

A major international nongovernmental organization has placed a strict curfew on its employees in response to the spate of attacks, and residents like Khan the baker have more faith in the abilities of the Taliban than those of government and foreign forces.

“They can assassinate a person in the daylight, put sticky bombs during night and carry out big attacks like today,” Khan said. “No one can stop them.”

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