Nighttime attack paralyzes Kabul

Smoke and flames light up the night from a blaze at the Intercontinental hotel after an attack on the hotel by Taliban fighters and a response by Afghan security forces backed by NATO helicopters in Kabul.</p>

Smoke and flames light up the night from a blaze at the Intercontinental hotel after an attack on the hotel by Taliban fighters and a response by Afghan security forces backed by NATO helicopters in Kabul.

The explosions and firing went on for hours, say residents. As of this writing, there was little clarity about the purpose or the final outcome of Tuesday night's attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. Those living near the scene reported several loud explosions as late as 2:15 a.m., and several people described random and sporadic firing in other parts of the city as well.

Helicopters hovered overhead, suggesting that the international forces had become involved in the incident. Security in the capital had been handed over to Afghan forces last year, but this appeared to be a situation they were unable to handle on their own.

Afghan helicopters are not equipped with night vision, meaning that the aircraft must have belonged to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led coalition of 49 nations dealing with Afghan security.

Later reports indicated that ISAF had picked off three insurgents who were on the roof of the hotel, but this could not be confirmed.

(See: Timeline of Taliban attacks in Kabul so far this year)

At least six attackers had somehow made their way inside the Intercontinental, according to Afghan security officials. An hour after the attack began, at about 10 p.m. in Kabul, reports said that up to 10 people had died. The final count could be much higher as local residents say that the loud booms of rocket explosions could be heard, as well as the sound of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

The choice of target was an interesting one. The Intercontinental Hotel lies on the outskirts of the city, on a hill to the northwest of the city center. Once popular with foreigners, it is now frequented mainly by Afghans. There is no alcohol served in its several restaurants, the menu is mostly Afghan, and the outdoor pool, once a big draw, is seldom used.

It does not have the five-star cachet of the Serena, which has also been attacked several times; nor does it have the inner-city vulnerability of the Safi Landmark, which was hit in February of this year.

But the Intercontinental has become a popular site for government events. The hotel is now serving as the center for a conference of provincial governors, many of whom were staying there. While it is not yet clear who has been killed, many fear that government dignitaries could be among the final tally.

It has become commonplace to complain of worsening security in Kabul, but the attack on the Intercontinental is a sure sign that the situation is spinning out of control.

Entrance to the facility can only be gained by negotiating a zigzag course of barriers and checkpoints, each manned by several Afghan security officials.

However, as one Kabul resident pointed out, this is for the front entrance. The rear of the hotel backs onto a wooded hill, which some sport-minded Kabul residents use for exercise.

“Perhaps they climbed through the trees and up the hill,” he speculated.

But however it is finally proven to have occurred, the attack will undermine still further the fragile sense of security of Kabul residents, both Afghan and foreign.

The capital has become more and more unstable of late, as the armed opposition launches attacks with deadly regularity.

Just over a week ago, suicide bombers targeted a police station in central Kabul, killing at least nine. In May, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a military hospital in Kabul, killing six and injuring 18. In April, a man in an Air Force uniform opened fire at Kabul International Airport, killing eight U.S. soldiers and one contractor. Also in April, an attacker penetrated into the Afghan Defense Ministry, gaining access to the Minister’s office and killing at least two before the minister’s bodyguards shot and killed him.

In February, suicide attackers targeted the Safi Landmark Hotel and City Center shopping complex; at least two were killed.

In January it was a popular supermarket in a tiny downtown district; 14 people were killed in a suicide bombing and grenade attack, including an Afghan human rights activist, along with her husband, a prominent doctor, and their four children.

So far, 2011 has been a very bad year for Afghanistan in general, and Kabul in particular.

This latest attack comes just a few short weeks before the beginning of the security handover to Afghan forces, known as the transition. Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Lashkar Gah, Panjshir, Bamian, and eastern Laghman are scheduled to be the first seven sites to transition to full Afghan security.

But the Taliban, who claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack in Kabul, seem intent on demonstrating to the Afghan forces as well as to their foreign mentors that security is bad and getting worse. Virtually all of the transition sites have seen a deterioration in the overall situation over the past few months, ever since President Hamid Karzai announced the names of the “Transition Seven” in March.

Following the U.S. troop surge in 2010, some areas of the volatile south showed a marked improvement, although U.S. officials are careful to point out that the gains are “fragile and reversible.” But as the Taliban shifted their focus from a pitched battle they had little hope of winning in the south, they seem to have concentrated their attentions on areas previously thought to be safe, such as the western city of Herat, which saw a series of attacks on May 30.

The sense of dislocation in Afghanistan is compounded by the imminent withdrawal of U.S. forces. U.S. President Barack Obama announced last Thursday that he was beginning his promised drawdown by removing 10,000 soldiers by the end of 2011, with the remaining 20,000 “surge” troops due to be sent home by next summer, well ahead of November’s presidential elections.

The Afghan government, as well as the international community, are intent on bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, in order to put an end to the violence. The U.S. defense establishment has made no secret, however, that they want to punish the Taliban on the battlefield in order to make them more amenable to peace talks.

If Tuesday’s attacks are anything to go by, the Taliban may be pursuing a similar tactic.