KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday blamed an intelligence failure by his government and especially NATO for a wave of suicide attacks in Kabul and three provinces a day earlier that Afghan and NATO officials said they suspected were led by a Pakistan-based extremist group.
Should the suspicions about the Haqqani network prove accurate, seriously frayed U.S.-Pakistan relations could suffer a fresh blow just as Washington and Islamabad appear poised to begin trying to repair ties.
Karzai broke his silence hours after the last of 36 insurgents were killed early Monday in Afghan security force assaults on two Kabul buildings from which the attackers fired at embassies, government offices and U.S.-led NATO coalition facilities.
The capital returned to its usual traffic-clogged state as Afghan police and U.S. advisers removed weapons and swept the buildings for booby traps and evidence while the dead gunmen lay where they were cut down.
“The situation is too bad, it’s too bad,” said Khoja Matiullah Sidiqi, 29, an unemployed computer programmer, who fled with his family from their home when gun-firing insurgents stormed into the building across the street in the Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic enclave. “We don’t know our future. We’re very afraid.”
Four civilians and 11 Afghan security force members died in Kabul and Logar, Nangarhar and Paktia provinces, a presidential palace statement said. Thirty-two civilians and 42 Afghan police and troops were wounded.
But the return of relative calm Monday also brought sharp questions: How could the insurgents plan such complex, coordinated strikes without being discovered? Who were they? Did they receive help from operatives inside the Afghan security forces?
The attackers smuggled stocks of arms and ammunition into what are supposedly the well-secured hearts of Kabul and the provincial capitals of Puli Alam, Jalalabad and Gardez. In Kabul and the Logar capital of Puli Alam, they drove their small arsenals through workday traffic to multi-story buildings that they seem to have commandeered with little trouble.
Split into squads, the gunmen loosed gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades at Afghan and foreign targets. In Kabul, they aimed at the U.S. Embassy, other foreign missions, the Parliament, a compound of the Afghan intelligence service, the headquarters of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force and two ISAF bases.
The attacks triggered fierce firefights with Afghan anti-terrorist police that in two locations in Kabul _ where security had been no tighter than usual _ lasted more than 18 hours.
Karzai told a meeting of his Cabinet that the attacks represented “an intelligence failure for us and especially NATO,” according to a presidential palace statement. The Afghan leader’s criticism came despite the fact that Afghan forces took control of Kabul last year at the start of ISAF’s gradual handover of security responsibilities.
His comments were in line with an ongoing narrative designed to reassure Afghans that “this will all be better” when foreign combat forces have left by the end of 2014, said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysts Network.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged that the attacks showed “that the Taliban is resilient, that they remain determined.” But he downplayed the significance of the attacks, saying, “There were no tactical gains here. These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory.”
With 20,000 U.S. troops preparing to leave later this year in the second phase of the international troop drawdown, many Afghans said the attacks increased their worries.
“We don’t trust the (Afghan) security forces. We don’t trust the government. We have all these foreign troops here, and they (insurgents) can still attack,” said Sidiqi, who hid with his family in their basement garage. They then drove to his mother’s home near Parliament, only to find Afghan security forces fighting insurgents firing from a nearby building.
Afghan, NATO officials and some experts said, however, that Afghan security forces responded with proficiency and courage.
“My impression is that they did perform well, and there is a perception among Afghans that they performed well, which is very important,” said van Bijlert. “But I think there was an overstatement by ISAF that they are ready to do this on their own.”
Some Afghans wondered why it took the deeply unpopular Karzai more than 24 hours after the attacks began to make a statement. One Afghan sarcastically wrote on Twitter, “He couldn’t talk, he was counting the shots.”
The strikes threatened to damage efforts by the United States and Pakistan to repair a relationship that’s deteriorated since U.S. forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops manning border posts in November. Pakistan’s Parliament opened the way for the delicate process to begin Thursday, approving new guidelines _ widely believed to have been set by the powerful army _ to guide Islamabad’s future relationship with Washington.
U.S. officials hope that one result will be the reopening of supply routes from the Pakistani port of Karachi to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which Pakistan closed following the border incident.
The Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Afghan insurgent group that U.S. officials have linked to Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, is suspected of playing the leading role in the suicide assaults, Afghan and NATO officials said. The ISI denies any links with the group.
Afghan and NATO officials stressed, however, that the investigation had just begun and that it was too early to draw conclusions.
The attacks “have all the hallmarks of the Haqqani network,” said a NATO official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly. Their “sophistication and nature” were similar to a series of spectacular strikes the group carried out last year in Kabul against the British cultural center, the Intercontinental Hotel and the U.S. Embassy, he said.
In September, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now retired, accused the ISI of supporting the attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and the U.S. mission, calling the Haqqani network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s army-run intelligence agency.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused the ISI and the Pakistani army of supporting the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other Afghan insurgents as a means of wielding influence in Afghanistan after the departure of foreign troops.
Several experts cautioned against immediately blaming the Haqqani network, explaining that it suited Karzai’s government to hold the group accountable at a time that it is trying to lure the Taliban into peace talks.
Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi, the Afghan interior minister, told a news conference that an insurgent captured in the Nangarhar capital of Jalalabad “confessed he had received training outside of Afghanistan, and affiliates himself to the Haqqani network.”
Two suicide bombers arrested in Kabul before they could carry out a plan to assassinate Karim Khalili, the country’s second vice president, were determined to be Haqqani operatives, said Lutfallah Mashal, spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence service.
“All of these operations were led and organized by the Haqqani network,” asserted Gen. Ghulam Sakhi, the police chief of Logar province, where Afghan security forces fought fierce battles with two teams of insurgents that seized two multi-story buildings.
There also were suspicions that the Taliban cooperated in the attacks. One of their spokesmen issued statements by cellphone while the attacks were underway, claiming responsibility and giving accurate details of the targets, as did the group’s website.
(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)