KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide attack that paralyzed a key NATO headquarters at Kabul’s international airport early Monday began, as it turns out, with a mugging outside a mosque.
The seven Taliban fighters drove into a residential neighborhood adjacent to the northern, military side of the airport, in a car and a delivery truck, about 4 a.m. Monday. They got out and tried to enter a house but the gate was locked, said a man named Berhannudin, who was walking with a friend to a nearby mosque for morning prayers.
All but one were in the uniform of the Afghan border police, he said, which has its national headquarters nearby.
At first, Berhannudin – who like many Afghans uses only one name – thought the men really were police. Then the one in civilian clothes pointed a pistol at another man outside the mosque and demanded his cellphone before the men returned to their vehicles.
What happened next was a five-hour orgy of gunfire and explosions as the men took up positions in a massive four-story home under construction about 350 yards north of the airport’s security perimeter and opened fire on the operational headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the headquarters of the Afghan air force.
The attack by the seven Taliban not only paralyzed the base for hours but terrorized the Afghan neighbors, who cowered in their homes waiting for the gun battle to end.
In a modest single-story home a few feet from the house the insurgents occupied, Sayed Maqbol, too, was awake for morning prayers when he heard the pops and hisses. At first, he first dismissed the noises. Kabul’s notorious power grid acting up again, he thought.
But then the rocket-propelled grenades that Taliban fighters were shooting from the upper floors of the mansion began to detonate near and inside the airport, and they began spraying machine-gun fire at the airport and around the neighborhood. Maqbol, indignant, reached for his cellphone and called the police.
Then he gathered his brother, their wives and 10 children and they scrambled for the safest place in the house to shield themselves.
The police, he said, arrived within minutes and began exchanging fire with the militants.
Then reinforcements poured in, eventually including dozens of Afghan regular and special operations soldiers and intelligence service commandos. They fired hundreds of rounds of light and heavy machine-gun fire and RPGs, as the insurgents fought back.
Ricocheting bullets and grenade fragments showered Maqbol’s enclosed yard and house.
As the fighting raged, journalists began gathering behind a nearby house, marveling at the high number of explosions. They could see modest damage to at least one tent-like temporary hangar on the base. Apparently, though, it didn’t belong to ISAF: a spokeswoman for the coalition said later that there was no damage to its buildings, aircraft or equipment.
One RPG landed close enough to the journalists to ruffle their hair, but the firefight didn’t keep a local resident from bringing them bread, kebabs and tea in glass cups. Or local kids from peering around the house at the siege, though a local elder repeatedly chastised them and chased them back.
Eventually, firing from the Afghan security forces grew so intense, Maqbol said, that the remaining attackers were forced into the lower floors and basement, where they no longer had a clear shot into the airport or compound. At that point, he said, police surged into the neighborhood and pulled his family and other civilians out of the nearby homes to safety, even as the firing continued.
The fighting continued for hours, with dozen of explosions – several of them, it turned out, from suicide vests worn by the attackers. Two Afghan army helicopters circled the scene for part of the battle, joined for awhile by a pair of the Black Hawks usually flown by the NATO-led coalition.
The journalists could hear a PA system on the ISAF base giving periodic updates. At one point, it told personnel there to remain in bunkers and predicted that the fighters would be repelled “in an hour or two.”
Finally, the shooting died to a trickle, and the booms came only sporadically. Then it was done, and the Afghan authorities loaded into police pickups, which took them to the house.
The attack was an unsuccessful echo of an assault last year on the main airfield used by U.S. Marines in restive Helmand province. Those 15 attackers, dressed in U.S. uniforms, breached a lightly defended side of Camp Bastion and attacked a row of hangars. They killed two U.S. Marines, wounded eight others and a civilian contractor and caused about $200 million in damage to aircraft.
The Kabul police chief told journalists on the site Monday that the latest attackers also may have planned to try to breach the base wall, perhaps with a cache of explosives that was in their truck. But a police officer destroyed the truck with an RPG, he said.
And this time there were fewer than half as many attackers, and the results were much different. The attackers never entered the airport, said Afghan officials, and except for two civilians who suffered minor injuries and the dead insurgents, there were no casualties.
With the ongoing drawdown among the NATO-led troops, Afghan security forces now take the lead in fighting in nearly all of the country, and they appeared fully in charge of the response to Monday’s attack.
Two U.S. troops were seen sticking close to Afghan police leaders, and at one point a Norwegian special forces operator pushed through the journalists to enter a house that Afghan security officials were using as a kind of command post. But the two Americans seemed only to be observing, and otherwise there was little sign of foreign forces.
The outcome of the fight – seven dead attackers, no killed Afghan or NATO troops – was a confidence booster for the Afghan soldiers and police who were visibly cheerful when journalists were allowed into the neighborhood about an hour after the shooting stopped. Several casually struck heroic poses behind the machine guns on their trucks, others went from room to room in the house, gawking at the bodies of the attackers.
The remains of six were in various rooms, the basement and in the stairwell. It was obvious that most or all of them had triggered suicide vests as the Afghan security forces closed in. It’s unclear how the seventh died.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was traveling in Qatar, lauded his security forces’ quick and effective response in a statement released by his office. And Sediq Sediqi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the national police, said the failed attack “should be an example for those who dare to attack Afghans in the future.”
Maqbol, meanwhile, had his own praise for the police.
After the fighting, the concrete mansion was pocked inside and out with holes from RPGs and bullets, with the heaviest damage on the side that was just a few yards from his house. He could scarcely believe his family survived, and that the police were able to rescue them in the midst of such intense fighting.
“They saved our lives,” he said, standing in his front yard a few feet from the body of an expended rocket. “I really praise what the police officers did for me and my family today and appreciate that they took this risk.”
Natiq is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jayinkabul