President Barack Obama sought to use a surprise visit to Afghanistan to start lowering the curtain on the longest war in U.S. history. But as Taliban-led insurgents showed only hours after Obama flew home Wednesday, the bloodletting appears far from over.
At least three suicide attackers struck a heavily guarded housing complex for international workers in Kabul and the Taliban declared the start of a spring offensive, a dark bookend to Obama’s brief overnight visit that contrasted starkly with his assertion that the conflict is winding down.
The violence claimed at least seven lives, underscoring anew how what is supposedly the most secure Afghan city remains vulnerable to attacks that humiliate the government and its foreign backers while stoking fear among ordinary Afghans as U.S.-led combat forces withdraw.
“The attack was a message to Obama that the Afghan nation will not accept America’s slavery,” a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told McClatchy by cellphone.
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While Mujahid claimed responsibility on behalf of the Taliban, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, said that the Haqqani network, an extremist group based in Pakistan’s tribal area, “cannot be ruled out” as the culprit. The United States blamed the group for a wave of attacks on April 15 against government and foreign facilities, including the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters, in Kabul and three provincial capitals that lasted some 18 hours and killed more than 60.
Shortly after Wednesday’s violence, the Taliban announced on their website that their spring offensive would start Thursday “under the glorified jihadi name of al Farooq.” Al Farooq is the surname of the second man to succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic faith.
The “primary target” will be U.S.-led international troops, “their advisers, their contractors and members of all associated military, intelligence and auxiliary departments,” said the statement. Others will include “high-ranking officials of the stooge Kabul regime,” lawmakers and people associated with the defense, interior and intelligence ministries.
In a separate statement, the Taliban denounced as “illegitimate” a strategic agreement on U.S.-Afghan relations signed by Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and vowed to continue fighting “until the expulsion of all invaders and their puppets.”
It remains to be seen just how potent their spring offensive will be. The insurgency has suffered serious blows since a U.S. troop buildup in 2010 that forced them to all but abandon conventional attacks and rely heavily on ambushes, assassinations, roadside bombs and attacks like Wednesday’s, aimed at a housing complex called Green Village.
“The insurgency will likely expand its asymmetric operations as a result of its diminished operational capability and in order to conserve diminishing resources,” states a Pentagon report on the war that was released Tuesday. While the report expressed doubt that the insurgency will be able to sustain a significant offensive this year, citing diminishing popular support and the elimination of many senior militants, it said that “insurgent leaders have worked throughout the fall and winter to motivate leaders and fighters, particularly in the south and southwest, to leave Pakistani sanctuaries and return to battle.”
Wednesday’s attack, combined with last month’s coordinated assaults, raised questions about the assertion in the report _ the Department of Defense Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, submitted every six months to Congress _ that allied efforts “have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership.”
While predicting that the overall number of attacks should continue to decline, the report warns that some high-profile attacks should be expected in Kabul. And it raises doubts about the Obama administration’s plans to draw the Taliban into peace talks, concluding that “despite initial overtures toward political cooperation … the Taliban retains its goal of overthrowing the elected Afghan government following the withdrawal of international forces” at the end of 2014, when the United States and allied nations are to complete a pullout of their combat forces, handing the Afghan government full responsibility for the country’s security.
Obama’s six-hour visit coincided with the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in neighboring Pakistan, and was clearly staged with his tough re-election campaign against presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney in mind.
He arrived on Tuesday in the dead of night to sign with Karzai a 10-year framework for U.S.-Afghan ties after U.S. combat forces leave. An undetermined number of U.S. troops will remain to train Afghan troops and provide them with intelligence and logistics support. The United States and its allies will continue financing and equipping Afghan forces.
After signing the agreement at Karzai’s palace, Obama spoke to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. He also delivered a televised address to the American people that sought to frame the U.S. troop drawdown as signaling the end of the 9/11 wars and the result of major progress toward crushing al Qaida, the Taliban and allied terrorist groups.
After “more than a decade under the dark cloud of war ... we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,” Obama declared. “The Iraq war is over. The number of our troops in harm’s way has been cut in half, and more will be coming home soon. We have a clear path to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan, while delivering justice to al Qaida.”
“As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it is time to renew America,” he said. “This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end.”
Obama warned, however, that “there will be difficult days ahead” _ a forecast borne out just hours after he left for Washington, when three suicide attackers struck the housing complex on the eastern edge of Kabul shortly after 6 a.m.
One attacker detonated a car loaded with explosives outside the walled compound’s front gate, leaving a small crater in the road, devastating the entrance and covering the roadway with twisted, smoking metal debris and broken bodies.
Armed with assault rifles and grenades, two other insurgents then tried to charge into the compound where European Union, United Nations and other international workers live. They failed to breach an inner gate into the interior perimeter and took cover inside a building housing a laundry and maintenance department, said Charles Dillon, a spokesman for Stratex Hospitality Inc., the complex’s owner.
The men exchanged fire with security guards until the arrival of Afghan special forces and their Norwegian military trainers, he said. One of the men died detonating his explosives-packed vest while the other eventually was shot dead.
“They didn’t get through to our interior perimeter,” said Dillon. “At no time was our residents’ safety compromised.” He declined to say how many people were living in the compound.
The building in which the attackers holed up caught fire, sending up a huge column of dark smoke.
At least seven people were killed and 17 others were wounded, said an Interior Ministry statement. The dead included a Nepalese security guard and a young boy who was on his way to school, while 10 children walking to a school next to the compound were among the injured.
Matthew Schofield of the Washington Bureau contributed from Washington.