Taliban launch attack on U.S. Embassy, NATO headquarters

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 13, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Insurgent gunmen and suicide bombers struck the U.S. Embassy, NATO headquarters and other locations in Kabul on Tuesday in coordinated attacks that raised fresh uncertainty over the ability of Afghan forces to assume security from departing U.S.-led international forces.

No U.S. or Western officials or soldiers were reported killed or injured during the violence, which saw insurgents raining rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire into the fortress-like U.S. mission, the adjacent NATO compound, and an Afghan intelligence facility from a nearby half-finished high-rise building.

At least three Afghan police and four civilians were killed, and nine police and eight civilians injured, according to an Interior Ministry statement. The wounded civilians included a young girl waiting for a visa inside the embassy compound.

It was the second major insurgent operation in four days and came two days after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes in the U.S., which were plotted in Afghanistan and triggered the U.S. invasion.

On Saturday, 77 American soldiers were injured when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck outside a U.S. base in Wardak province, about 40 miles from Kabul.

Video footage posted on the Internet by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force showed Macedonian troops, who provide security for the NATO headquarters, and U.S. soldiers loosing intense gunfire at the insurgents in the multistory building from atop stacks of shipping containers. At one point, a U.S. soldier warns of an incoming rocket-propelled grenade, shouting, "RPG, get down."

The gunfire persisted after sunset, and embassy staff remained locked down late into the evening. The shooting slackened around midnight, and Afghans employed by the mission were allowed to go home.

"Our soldiers are moving slowly (through the building) and clearing the way of possible explosives," Mohammad Zahir, the head of the Kabul police's crime and investigation department, told McClatchy.

Obama administration officials and U.S. military commanders have claimed significant progress in containing the Taliban-led insurgency as a result of a "surge" last year of 30,000 additional American troops, a major expansion in Afghan security forces and intensified "night raids" by special operations forces.

But Tuesday's attacks in Kabul's high-security diplomatic enclave showed that Taliban-led insurgents still can launch complex guerrilla-style strikes whose key aim appears to be eroding public confidence in the ability of President Hamid Karzai's government to take over from U.S.-led international forces.

In June, nine insurgents clad in suicide vests attacked a luxury hotel in Kabul, and last month, militants struck a British cultural center.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed that those responsible for the "cowardly attack" would be pursued.

"We will take all necessary steps, not only to ensure the safety of our people, but to secure the area and to ensure that those who perpetrated this attack are dealt with," Clinton said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the operation. But many of the most spectacular assaults in Kabul in recent years have been staged by the Haqqani network, an extremist group allied with the Taliban that U.S. officials say is supported by elements of neighboring Pakistan's powerful security apparatus.

The attacks began with insurgents blasting their way into an under-construction building about 300 yards from the entrance to the embassy. Gen Ayoub Salangi, the Kabul police chief, said a police guard and a taxi driver were killed in the initial assault, which began about 1:30 p.m.

Police killed two attackers. The other two, however, climbed to positions overlooking the embassy and NATO headquarters and fired assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades as U.S. and Afghan helicopters clattered overhead.

A rocket-propelled grenade hit the old embassy building, injuring four Afghans waiting for visas, including a young girl, CIA Director David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told a joint session of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

A minibus carrying schoolgirls was severely damaged when a rocket-propelled grenade crashed nearby, but no one was hurt, police said.

As gunfire and explosions echoed across the city throughout the afternoon, police intercepted and shot dead an insurgent wearing a suicide vest, Salangi said. His target was unknown.

Two other suicide bombers attempted to hit police stations in southwestern Kabul and near the city zoo, a police statement said, but police gunfire set off their explosive vests as they approached the buildings.

The attacks came in the run-up to the second phase of a transition plan under which Karzai's government is to assume full responsibility for the country's security by the end of 2014, when all 130,000 U.S.-led international combat troops are to be withdrawn.

In the first phase, which was completed in July, seven provinces and districts were turned over to Afghan security forces. The 30,000 U.S. troops "surged" mainly into southern Afghanistan are to be withdrawn by next summer.

Many U.S. and Afghan experts, including U.S. military officers and diplomats, remain deeply concerned over the ability of Afghan security forces to contain the Taliban-led insurgency after the departure of U.S.-led combat troops.

(Special correspondent Shukoor reported from Kabul; Landay reported from Washington.)

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