Obama’s special envoy arrives in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan: President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan arrived in Afghanistan on Thursday, the United States Embassy here said, one day after a coordinated series of Taliban suicide attacks in Kabul underscored the deteriorating security in the capital and across the country.
Security forces in Kabul remained on high alert Thursday, not only in preparation for the arrival of the envoy, Richard Holbrooke, but also because a Taliban spokesman claimed eight bombers remained at large in the city and were still “looking for a chance.”
The spokesman described Wednesday’s attacks as retaliation for the mistreatment and torture of Taliban prisoners.
The suicide bombers and Taliban gunmen struck government buildings at three sites in Kabul on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding 57. It was a complex and highly organized attack that demonstrated the ease with which the insurgents could penetrate even a heavily fortified place like Kabul.
At the Justice Ministry, five Taliban guerrillas armed with explosives and Kalashnikov rifles killed two guards, stormed inside and took control of the building for more than an hour. Frightened employees, including the justice minister, barricaded themselves in their offices while the armed men stalked the halls for victims. At least 10 people were killed, including two who were shot in the cross-fire between government forces and the insurgents, security officials said.
In addition to the eight bombers who struck the Justice Ministry, Taliban militants also attacked the Education Ministry and the directorate for prisons. All eight attackers at the three sites were killed, the Interior Ministry said.
Afterward, security forces carried the mangled bodies of the attackers out of the Justice Ministry building and, in a sign of deep disrespect of Muslim tradition, dumped the bodies unceremoniously on the concrete forecourt.
Earlier Thursday, Holbrooke met with a former Pakistani prime minister and opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, in the Pakistani city of Lahore. His tour of the region was part of a ground-up review of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan ordered by Obama, who met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday to discuss plans to bolster American force levels here.
The brazen nature of the Taliban attacks was certain to influence the debate among administration officials over the strength of the militants, who control much of the countryside and have steadily encroached on Kabul.
The attacks also highlighted the fluid and murky nature of the insurgents’ ties with terrorist networks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which Holbrooke visited briefly on Wednesday under Pakistani military escort.
One senior official in Washington said initial intelligence indicated that Wednesday’s attack was probably planned or supported by the Pakistan-based network of Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Haqqani’s group was also implicated in the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last summer and might have had the assistance of members of Pakistan’s intelligence agency in that operation, American officials have said.
The attacks on Wednesday were the most audacious since the embassy assault. And in an eerie echo of the attacks in Mumbai, India, in November, which Indian and American intelligence officials say have been traced to a Pakistani militant group, the Taliban gunmen on Wednesday sent three messages to Pakistan seeking the “blessing of their mastermind,” said Amrullah Saleh, director of the Afghan national intelligence service.
Moments later, they began “indiscriminate killing” inside the Justice Ministry, Saleh said. Officials said 21 people had been detained, but it was not clear what linked them to the attacks.
The multiple coordinated strikes cloaked Kabul, a dusty and chaotic city of four million, in panic for the entire day. Miles of Kabul’s principal thoroughfares were blocked off, as police officers and soldiers rushed to reinforce scores of checkpoints.
Hours later, there were fears that other bombers were still roaming Kabul. In addition to the eight bombers who struck the Justice Ministry, the Education Ministry and the directorate for prisons.
Across the city, many streets were empty as residents were too scared to go outside. The attacks clearly unnerved Afghan officials.
“The enemy still has the capability to bring this amount of weapons and explosives inside the city of Kabul and find their way to government institutions,” said Hanif Atmar, the interior minister. He promised new and strict security measures that would be “uncomfortable” for residents, but necessary. Many parts of the capital are already sectioned off for security, and foreign embassies sit behind layers of checkpoints and blast walls.
The most confidence-shaking attack, at the Justice Ministry, began about 10 a.m., when five Taliban fighters took over three of the building’s four floors. The ministry is in the heart of the capital, a few hundred yards from the presidential palace.
Employees locked their doors and dived for cover inside their offices. There was “chaos on all four floors,” said Habib Mushakhas, a senior ministry official, after the police rushed him out of the building. “I heard an explosion, then a firefight. There was a lot of blood in the corridors. I saw one dead body.”
A little more than an hour after the attack, security forces counterattacked. Scores of soldiers and police officers rushed into the building and scaled ladders onto upper floors. More than 20 shots were fired. Soon after, ambulances took several police officers and soldiers away, their feet hanging off of stretchers poking out the open doors. It was not clear whether they were wounded or dead.
Eventually, the police and soldiers retook enough of the building to begin evacuating dozens of survivors. Then they rushed children out from the kindergarten classroom inside the ministry.
The police also began removing civilian bodies. By early afternoon they said they felt confident that they had defeated the gunmen, and they called an impromptu news conference in the Justice Ministry’s forecourt.
But minutes later they realized that one Taliban attacker was still inside, and a handful of different security forces — the police, the Afghan Army and national intelligence officers — went searching for him. A nervous commander barked into his radio, “Try to recognize each other, and don’t shoot our own guys.”
A radio call came from a commander inside the building. “We’ve cornered him,” he said. “Could you order us to shoot? We are worried because we think there are children and other civilians around.”
Two commanders outside talked. “What should we do?” one said. “Shoot him!” said the other.
Moments passed, and the commander inside the building said: “There’s nobody here. We should attack.”
“Attack!” came the response from a commander outside.
About 60 shots were fired over the next 20 minutes. Finally, the last gunman was dead. But so, too, were two more civilians whose bodies were brought outside and laid on stretchers. Security officials later said two hostages were killed in the cross-fire as government forces killed the last gunman.
All of the gunmen had worn suicide-bomb vests, but none of the vests had detonated. The government forces had defused and stripped them from the bodies, which bore large gashes and bullet holes, or had arms ripped partly from shattered shoulders.
As security forces fought to take back control of the Justice Ministry, a single Taliban suicide bomber was killed as he tried to attack the Education Ministry.
Across town, two more Taliban bombers killed and wounded more people at the Prisons Department. One bomber blew himself up at a security checkpoint in front of the prisons building, while witnesses said the other bomber used the distraction to run inside.
Gholam Farouk Wafa, a 35-year-old policeman, said he was attending a training class inside with 60 other policemen when they saw a clean-shaven man with a large backpack come to the door. One of the policemen fired two shots at him, and the man fled upstairs, where he detonated his bomb, Wafa said.
Reporting was contributed by Lynsey Addario, Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi from Kabul; Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan; David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Mark McDonald from Hong Kong.