KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban-led insurgents opened a spring offensive Sunday with a wave of coordinated suicide missions, firing at embassies and government offices from seized buildings in Kabul and attacking U.S. bases and police stations in three eastern provinces.
The strikes, which seemed to catch U.S.-led forces and Afghan authorities by surprise, sparked fierce firefights in Kabul and two other cities that underscored the insurgency's lethality as U.S. combat troops gird for the second phase of a withdrawal due to end in 2014.
"This is the start of the spring operations," Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, declared in a cellphone interview with McClatchy. "This is just the beginning."
The violence, which lasted past nightfall in Kabul and Puli Alam, the capital of neighboring Logar province, claimed the lives of at least 26 insurgents and four civilians, Afghan and NATO officials said. At least 36 others, mostly civilians, were wounded. All of the casualties were Afghans. Some of the attackers were captured.
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The attacks, Mujahid said, were "a message" in response to recent assertions by U.S. officials and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen "that there would be no spring offensive because we are not able to fight."
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, issued a statement calling the strikes "largely ineffective."
In a separate statement, the ISAF commander, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, praised the response of Afghan security forces. The insurgents' choice of targets, he added, "speaks volumes about where we are in this campaign" to crush the insurgency and create a "sovereign Afghanistan responsive to its people."
But while the violence brought them no military gains, the insurgents demonstrated their ability once again to stage complex operations inside the security rings of Kabul and other government centers that will without doubt stoke fears of continued turmoil after U.S. and allied combat forces are gone at the end of 2014.
The audacious attacks — mirroring a September incident in which insurgents seized an unfinished high-rise and fired into the U.S. Embassy compound for nearly 24 hours before being killed by Afghan security forces — could also fuel demands in the United States and other NATO capitals to accelerate the withdrawal of international forces after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.
The violence in Kabul began with intermittent gunfire and then a series of window-shaking blasts around 1:15 p.m., disrupting a languid spring day. Traffic and pedestrians raced from the streets as police blockaded major thoroughfares, paralyzing the city center, and merchants gated their shops.
There was no sign that ISAF or Afghan authorities had prior intelligence of the attacks, with security at the international force's headquarters and around the city no tighter than usual.
The attacks showed that the insurgents remain fully capable of executing complex operations requiring extensive preparations, including scouting the buildings they seized and transporting their weapons and extensive stocks of ammunition to them without being caught.
"They've have organized this for some time," said Sgt. Sher Shah Sultani, a member of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, a special paramilitary police force, who had to withdraw from an assault near the Parliament building after his machine gun malfunctioned.
"I can't say how many days or weeks, but this is well planned."
The strikes were the first in Kabul since December, when a suicide bomber killed 84 Shiite Muslims celebrating a religious festival.
Four groups of insurgents were involved in the Kabul strikes, police said. A team of two suicide bombers and a guide, however, were arrested before they could assassinate the country's second vice president, Karim Khalili, said Lutfullah Mashal, the spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service.
One team stormed into an unfinished high-rise in the diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan, and rained gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades at embassies, government buildings and other targets, and at counterattacking Afghan security forces.
Two rocket-propelled grenades streaked at the U.S. Embassy but didn't land inside; a third exploded inside ISAF's fortress-like headquarters by the rear gate without causing casualties.
Just before midnight, Hashmatullah Stanekzai, a Kabul police spokesman, said three of the attackers had been killed and "two or maybe three are still resisting." However, sporadic violence continued into Monday morning, with blasts and gunfire erupting in Kabul around 1:30 a.m., rattling windows and setting dogs howling in the darkness.
Stanekzai said that police commandos were assaulting the remaining insurgents holed up in the high-rise in Wazir Akbar Khan and near the Parliament.
Four insurgents raced into a four-floor private residence in Kabul's eastern Paktiakot district after parking an explosives-laden vehicle at the door, and began firing at two nearby ISAF bases, police said.
They held off a counterattack by anti-terrorist police until late in the afternoon but were eventually killed, police said.
A third four-fighter team took over an apartment building in the western Darulaman section of the city and loosed gunfire and RPGs at the Parliament, about 500 yards away.
Anti-terrorist police raced to the scene in Humvees and small trucks and besieged the building. They dueled for hours with the attackers inside, firing bullets that crashed into the six-floor building or exploded on the outside in billows of brick dust.
As evening fell, a machine gunner in a Humvee turret fired tracer rounds that cut through the gloom, bouncing off the building in fiery red arcs.
Abdul Khaliq, 35, an aid organization worker, said his sister and her 7-year-old daughter escaped from a first-floor window as the fighting erupted. But, he said, his brother in-law and two nephews were trapped in their second-floor apartment and may have been taken hostage.
"The Taliban are not strong, but the Afghan government is weak. It's so weak that they can't protect the capital," said Khaliq, voicing a widely held view of President Hamid Karzai's administration as he watched the firefight from behind concrete barriers outside the Parliament building.
"If they can't maintain security in the city, how can they maintain security in the rural areas and what will happen after the withdrawal of foreign forces? It's a really big worry."
Shortly before 7 p.m., power to the area was cut and the lights went out to obscure the insurgents' view of encroaching Afghan police. Explosions and machine gun fire echoed in the dark, mingling with the calls to evening prayers.
The standoff was continuing at midnight. Stanekzai, the police spokesman, said that two attackers had been killed but the other two were still fighting — and it was possible that they were holding hostages.
In Puli Alam, two four-man teams of attackers seized high-rises in the city center, said Gen. Ghulam Sakhi, the provincial police chief. One group fired at the provincial Afghan intelligence headquarters, he said, and the second targeted a U.S.-run Provincial Reconstruction Team compound and the governor's compound.
Afghan security forces counterattacked and killed all four members of one of the teams, he said. But the other group remained holed up well into the night, exchanging fire with Afghan troops and police.
Dr. Zarif Naibkhel, the director of the Logar Health Department, said 15 wounded soldiers and civilians were treated at the city hospital. The dead bodies of three civilians were also brought to the facility, he said.
Sakhi said the attackers belonged to the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally based in Pakistan's neighboring South Waziristan tribal area. U.S. officials have charged that the group maintains close links to the main Pakistani intelligence service. Islamabad denies the allegation.
However, U.S. officials and Mashal, the Afghan intelligence spokesman, said it was too soon to determine which groups were involved in the attacks.
In Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, five insurgents disguised in women's clothing made their way into a private office building from which they attacked two adjacent police facilities, said Juma Khan Hamdard, the provincial governor.
A two-and-a-half hour gun battle raged in the center of Gardez and Afghan security forces called in ISAF aircraft to help them kill the five assailants, he said.
At least 15 people were wounded, including four police officers and two women, he said.
As many as three strikes took place in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. In one attack, insurgents targeted a U.S. base housing a U.S.-run Provincial Reconstruction Team with small arms and an explosives-packed vehicle. The vehicle, however, exploded before it reached its target as troops inside the base returned fire, ISAF said.
In the second incident, a bomb exploded outside the U.S. airbase without causing casualties, ISAF said.
Meanwhile, Afghan security forces intercepted a suicide bomber before he could detonate his explosive vest in the center of Jalalabad and shot him dead, said Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
The coordinated attacks in key locations renewed questions about the extent to which Taliban operatives have infiltrated the Afghan security forces.
"The Taliban could not transport all of weapons and ammunitions to such key locations Amrullah Aman, a retired Afghan army general and military analyst, said the insurgents couldn't have entered Kabul with all of their weapons and ammunition "without the support of someone inside the Afghan security forces."
Mark Jacobson, the former deputy NATO representative to ISAF, said that the attacks were aimed in part at undermining NATO support for Karzai by sowing the idea among Western publics that it's futile to continue backing his government.
"The insurgents understand that the public opinion in NATO capitals is key to continued support for the Afghan government," he said. "This is a war of perceptions and the insurgency is clearly trying to create the perception that they are in control — even if that is not the reality."
(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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