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Criticism, concerns arise in wake of Kabul attack

Insurgents used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades to fire at the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul from their perch in this unfinished building several blocks away. The 20-hour attack ended Wednesday morning after Afghan security forces killed the last of the assailants.

MARTIN KUZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARTIN KUZ | Published: September 14, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — By the time an almost 20-hour insurgent assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters here ended Wednesday morning with 27 dead, criticism of and concerns about Afghanistan’s security forces were already percolating in the nation’s capital.

“You expect to be safe in this part of the city,” said Alam Atraf, a civil servant in the Ministry of Public Health, whose office stands less than a quarter-mile from the tightly secured embassy and NATO compounds in Kabul’s central district.

“For the insurgents to come in like this,” he added, “it is not acceptable.”

His perspective mirrored that of many residents in the aftermath of coordinated attacks in the city’s interior killed 11 civilians, including at least six children, and five Afghan police officers.

“We are all afraid after what has happened,” said taxi driver Gul Rahman. “It is too easy for the insurgents to do these attacks.”

Atraf and Rahman were among hundreds of people who gathered late Wednesday morning near an unfinished, 12-story building where militants had holed up with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades to take aim at the embassy and NATO headquarters several blocks away.

Two hours earlier, Afghan police officers and soldiers had killed the last of the insurgents who sneaked into the building early Tuesday afternoon. In total, 11 insurgents were killed in fighting around the city, The Associated Press reported. Afghan forces had stormed the building and traded gunfire with the militants for hours as coalition helicopters strafed the insurgents’ positions.

U.S. officials identified the attackers as members of the Haqqani terrorist network. According to Afghan security officials, the insurgents had donned blue burqas, the traditional veils worn by Afghan women, to slip through police checkpoints near the building on Tuesday.

Once inside, they began firing on their targets as suicide bombers in three other locations of the city’s core detonated explosives, killing at least one police officer. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, confirmed that six to seven rockets landed inside the embassy compound.

Afghan police officers and soldiers patrolled the building and its perimeter after the attack ended Wednesday. Two bodies lay in the back of an ambulance outside as Afghan police officers with cell phones took turns snapping photos of the corpses.

Blood stained the stairs, and bullet holes pocked the walls inside the building, where four more bodies were clustered on the eighth floor. One attacker, who looked no more than 18 years old, had a bullet hole between his wide-open, dust-coated eyes. Another man lay face down, missing chunks of his skull.

The siege marked the latest in a series of deadly attacks in the capital this summer, following a suicide bombing of the British Council last month and a raid on the Intercontinental Hotel in June.

NATO and Afghan forces have dubbed Kabul’s central district the “ring of steel,” a moniker that suggests a high, even inviolable level of security. But the complex attack carried out by insurgents had workers fleeing the area en masse, jamming roads and sidewalks as they sought to escape the gunfire and rockets.

People returned in smaller numbers Wednesday as word spread that the assault was over. They brought both a sense of unease about the city’s safety and skepticism of Afghan forces, who are assuming greater control of national security as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Some also suggested Afghans need to show greater resolve in determining their future.

“The Afghan police and soldiers don’t seem able to handle our security and government,” said Mohammad Yassin, who runs a restaurant a block from the building that militants had occupied.

Unlike a number of business owners in the vicinity, Yassin had reopened for business on Wednesday, after closing early the day before when the explosions chased away his workers and customers.

“The international forces have been here long enough,” he said. “We can’t always depend on them. It is time we handle our problems and fix them.”

One rocket-propelled grenade fired by insurgents Tuesday afternoon landed outside the public health ministry where Atraf works. A dark thought seized him as the building shook.

“I told myself, ‘This is how I will die,’ ” he said. “It felt like I was about to be blown up.” But a day later, still very much alive, his thoughts had turned to what he perceives as his nation’s weak security.

“We have had help from the international community, but we still are having problems,” he said.

The ease with which the insurgents entered the central district, coupled with reports that weapons had been stashed in the building before the attack, led to speculation that Afghan officers may have aided the plot.

“You have to wonder if maybe some of the policemen didn’t know about this in advance,” said Abdul Musawer, who works for a cable TV company that has an office in the shadow of the building. “They are supposed to protect us, but some may be working with the terrorists.”

As doubts about the country’s security forces persist, the withdrawal of U.S. troops has only deepened the anxiety of some residents.

“We need other countries to help us,” said Abdul Wasi, who owns a corner store down the street from the embassy. “But we know they won’t be here always, so we need our own security to be better.”

Or as Musawer said, “We have to make Afghanistan safe for ourselves.”

kuzm@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @martinkuz

A view from the eighth floor of the unfinished building that insurgents used to fire on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul during a 20-hour attack that ended Wednesday morning. The embassy and NATO compounds are located to the left of the cranes above a hotel that's under construction.
MARTIN KUZ/STARS AND STRIPES

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