KABUL, Afghanistan — The sun was shining and the streets were filled with schoolchildren on Wednesday morning — boys in blue shirts chased each other around, little girls in black dresses and white headscarves made their demure way to class. One crossed in front of our car, her hands full of an enormous ice cream cone.
It would be difficult to guess that a couple of miles away, the battle was still raging at a construction site on Abdul Haq Square, overlooking the U.S. Embassy. The embassy had been the main target of the Taliban attacks, and had absorbed a hail of rockets and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) all night long.
For nearly 20 hours, 11 attackers had paralyzed much of Kabul; the last two holdouts on the upper stories of an unfinished building continued their attacks until mid-morning on Wednesday.
“I did not sleep at all,” said Ahmad Shah, who lives in Microrayon, a large, Soviet-constructed apartment complex near the square where the fighting was going on.
“There was gunfire and RPGs from midnight on, and at about 3:30 a.m. the police began firing back. My little daughter woke up and was very afraid.”
The residents of Microrayon, who include many government officials, were not able to go to their offices today. Shah’s daughter could not go to school.
It took until after 10 a.m. Wednesday for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to finally quell the last two insurgents.
“I was afraid they were going to leave them up there until they starved to death,” joked one Afghan government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The final death toll: 27 killed, including 11 insurgents. Six international forces and close to 30 Afghan civilians were injured. Given the amount of ordnance expended and the duration of the attack, it could have been much worse.
“Their goal was not to kill civilians,” said the Afghan official. “They just wanted to spread fear.”
With the fighting ended, the spin wars began.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker lost no time in characterizing the incident as “cowardly attacks by an increasingly desperate insurgency.” He went on to praise the “enormous courage and dedication on the part of … the Afghan National Security Forces.”
This has been the mantra of the international military and U.S. administration ever since the Taliban insurgency began heating up in 2005-2006. The more ground the insurgents gained, the more effort was expended in portraying their mode of operations as the last gasp of desperate men.
Crocker was echoing CIA Director General David Petraeus, former NATO commander in Afghanistan, when he pointed to the insurgents’ tactics.
“Unable to confront ISAF and newly-trained Afghan troops on the conventional battlefield, (the insurgents) have turned to launching attacks on high-profile facilities like the U.S. Embassy in an attempt to garner headlines.”
As Crocker and Petraeus are no doubt aware, the tactics used by Tuesday’s attackers are classic insurgency techniques. It is called “asymmetric warfare” — when an insurgency is faced with a stronger and better-equipped foe, they turn to a different type of battle.
In Crocker’s estimation, the attack “backfired.” No walls were breached and no U.S. embassy personnel were injured or killed.
But the insurgents scored an important psychological victory with Tuesday’s raids. Although the American ambassador took pains to highlight the sacrifice of the ANSF in thwarting the battle, many Kabul residents were asking why it took an enormous force so long to take care of less than a dozen attackers.
“Our Afghan forces were not willing to go in after the insurgents,” said Zia, who lives in central Kabul and works in an Afghan non-governmental organization. “They were not strong enough.”
Many Afghans saw the attacks, not as a sign of “an increasingly desperate insurgency,” but a powerful blow against the already tenuous feeling of security in the capital.
“They can strike anytime, anywhere,” said an Afghan government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They want to make people feel this. They want to cause terror.”
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks. Ambassador Crocker said in a briefing on Wednesday that he believed that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was responsible. The Haqqani group has mounted several major attacks in the capital over the past few years.
Most analysts blame Pakistan for giving shelter to the group, which has long been rumored to have ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Public figures such as Sen. John McCain and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen have openly taken Pakistan to task for its connection to Haqqanis.
Pakistan, which receives billions in U.S. assistance every year, denies links with terrorist groups, but it has resisted taking on the Haqqanis, who are believed to be sheltering in Pakistan’s border area.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed that the attacks would not deter Afghans from continuing to take on responsibility for their own security.
"By carrying out such attacks terrorists cannot stop the transition of security from international to Afghan forces," Karzai said in a statement.
With the United States engaged in a drawdown of the more than 100,000 troops it has in Afghanistan, and other nations, such as Canada and the Netherlands, all but gone already, there is a major emphasis on the ANSF taking on the task of protecting the population.
Seven areas, including Kabul, have already “transitioned” — military jargon for the handover of formal security responsibility.
Crocker, too, emphasized that the transition would continue.
“The transition to Afghan-led security is on track, as we turn our focus to long-term efforts for supporting a more secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan,” he said Wednesday.
In spite of the rhetoric, it will take Kabul residents quite awhile to feel safe. They are going on with their daily lives, but underneath there is a barely concealed beat of panic.
“What can we do?” shrugged Zia. “This is a part of our daily lives. All we can do is pray for peace. But we have been praying for such a long time.”