KABUL, Afghanistan – The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Wednesday acknowledged the Taliban gained a propaganda victory in a 20-hour assault focused on the U.S. Embassy, which left 27 police, civilians and insurgents dead. But he insisted the attack was not a sign of vulnerability in the Afghan capital.
Still, the sophistication and vehemence of the attack, in which insurgents fired rockets into the U.S. Embassy compound from a nearby unfinished high-rise where they may have stored heavy weapons ahead of time, raised fresh doubts about the Afghans' ability to secure their nation as U.S. and other foreign troops begin to withdraw. Afghan forces have nominally been in control of security in the capital since 2008 — but it took heavy involvement by U.S. and NATO forces to route out the latest attackers.
And spectacular attacks in the well-protected capital have become more common. This week's strike was the third deadly attack in Kabul since late June.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault. Kabul's deputy police chief said it was likely the Pakistan-based Haqqani network carried it on behalf of the extremist group. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker also blamed the Haqqanis, who have emerged as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's stability, working from safe areas across the border in Pakistan's tribal region.
It took 20 hours through the night for Afghan, U.S. and NATO troops to root out six insurgents holed up in the 12-story building on the Abdul Haq traffic circle, pounding them with barrages from attack helicopters as police and soldiers worked their way up floor by floor. From their roost, the insurgents had clear shots on the nearby U.S. Embassy and a nearby NATO compound, battling Afghan forces in a gunfight that lit up the night with tracer fire.
At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Afghan Interior Ministry announced that the final holdouts had been killed. Police could be seen clapping their hands in celebration on the building's roof, while others carried the mangled bodies of six insurgents down flights of rough concrete stairs and piled them into the back of a waiting ambulance.
Eleven Afghan civilians were killed in the battle, more than half of them children, along with five Afghan police officers, said U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Besides the insurgents in the building, four other attackers served as suicide bombers in coordinated attacks in several areas of Kabul — three of them killed by police before they could detonate their explosives.
Allen said that the attack had no impact on operations and did not mean that Afghan security forces weren't doing their job, arguing that many more potential attacks have been thwarted. However, he said it gave a propaganda victory to the Taliban.
"I'll grant that they did get an IO (Information Operations) win," Allen told reporters in the capital. NATO's senior civilian representative, Simon Gass, called the attack "an extremely frightening even for the citizens of Kabul."
Both these men and Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, argued that the insurgents are depending on headline-getting attacks because they can't actually take and hold ground. But in Kabul, the fear expressed by some residents showed the effectiveness of the current campaign.
Thirty-six-year-old Ghulam Sadeq, who works in a government office, said he doesn't trust the government or the security forces to keep him safe.
"It's true that the security forces were able to defeat attackers and prevent more casualties, but why couldn't they keep them from entering the city? Basically they are unable to stop them, or the insurgents have people helping them," Sadeq said.
Key questions were how the attackers managed to get their heavy arsenal so close to the embassy — into a building that Afghan and U.S. officials had long recognized was a potential platform for an attack. It appeared likely that either weaponry had been stored in the building ahead of time or that some insurgents had entered in advance with a supply of guns and ammunition.
A team of six police officers had been charged to guard the building — a 12-story concrete structure that looks like it was destined to become office space or a shopping center but where building had been halted for some time. Wahidullah Ahmad, a policeman who was overseeing the scene after the attack, said he did not know if any of those guards were among those killed.
One witness said the attackers were equipped with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly a mortar. They also boasted an 82 mm recoiless rifle, a powerful weapon that usually fires shells designed to destroy tanks and is very heavy to carry, much less rush up a building's stairs in the heat of an assault.
The attack began after midday Tuesday when a minivan packed with insurgents was stopped at a checkpoint at Abdul Haq square, which is about 300 yards (meters) from the U.S. Embassy, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
There were a series of large explosions starting around 1:30 p.m. At least one militant set off a suicide blast near the square. Others drove the vehicle into the partially constructed high-rise, which they took over.
Explosions shook the neighborhood as insurgents fired rockets from the building. Six or seven rockets hit inside the embassy compound during the fighting, and a rocket-propelled grenade that hit an embassy building wounded four Afghans. No NATO or U.S. Embassy employees were hurt.
There was a simultaneous barrage of explosions around the nearby Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, home to a number of other foreign missions. NATO and Afghan forces started to slowly move up floor by floor in an attempt to ferret out the fighters and U.S. helicopters provided fire from overhead.
The insurgents' Toyota minivan was rigged with explosives, and Afghan police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai said it likely ferried the weapons. In the van, police also found burqas — the body and face-covering robe worn by many Afghan women in public — that the attackers likely used as diguises to get past police checkpoints, he said.
U.S. and NATO officials praised the Afghan forces for routing the enemy, but international troops played a major role.
AP photos show international troops inside the building throughout the clearing operation, apparently directing both the Afghan police alongside them and passing information to helicopters overhead.
Helicopter gunships took out three of the last four insurgent holdouts, said an Afghan police inspector at the site, Shafiqullah Ibrahim.
Crocker said the attack would not affect the transfer of security responsibilities from the U.S.-led military coalition to the Afghan security forces. Foreign forces are to completely withdraw their combat troops by the end of 2014.
He said it also underlines the problem of the safe havens that the Taliban's Haqqani allies enjoy in the lawless tribal areas over the border in Pakistan, including north Waziristan. Nearly all Taliban attacks in and around the capital have been carried out by the Haqqanis — including a weekend truck bombing in eastern Wardak province that wounded 77 U.S. soldiers.
"It's tough when you're trying to fight an insurgency that has a lot of support outside the national borders," Crocker said. "It's complicated, it's difficult but clearly for a long term solution those safe havens have to be reduced."
Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.