Taliban militants attacked a popular resort near Kabul late Thursday night and battled with Afghan security forces well into Friday morning, underscoring the group's continued ability to mount serious challenges to security even in the capital.
Up to seven insurgents stormed a restaurant and hotel at 11:30 Thursday night and took the guests hostage, including children. Afghan police officials say that between 250 and 300 hostages were freed within the first hours of the clashes, but another 40 weren’t freed until morning. Several guests jumped into the lake to escape the attack, but, unable to swim, clung to a stone wall until police could rescue them in the morning. At least 20 people died in the fighting.
Coming as international forces work to stabilize the country as much as possible before handing full security responsibility to Afghans in the end of 2014, high-profile attacks like Friday’s are a serious concern for many Afghans. Carried out by small insurgent bands, the attacks usually have relatively low death tolls, but go a long way toward eroding Afghan perceptions of security.
“It is really important to counter such insurgent attacks in the capital because every high-profile attack, even if it only happens every one month or every three months, it shows that Afghanistan is unstable and the insurgents are close to the capital,” says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “Just waging attacks on every single target means a success for the insurgents.”
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, saying that Afghan government officials and foreigners frequent the restaurant and hotel and drink alcohol there.
“The mujahideen entered a small hotel and attacked a neighboring hotel that was used by foreigners for their illicit fun and having parties. It was a special hotel for Afghan government officials and foreigners,” says Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban.
Mr. Mujahid claimed that only foreigners and Afghan government workers were killed in the attack and that the fighters took special effort to protect children caught in the fighting.
Such Taliban statements are common, and the group often reports killing Afghan and international soldiers when they have actually killed civilians.
The attack took place at Qargha Lake, about a 30-minute drive outside of downtown Kabul. The area is one of the most popular weekend getaway spots for residents of the capital and other parts of Afghanistan. The lake is ringed by a number of restaurants and hotels, and Afghanistan’s only golf course is also located in Qargha.
Although foreigners in Afghanistan often visit Qargha Lake, it is predominantly a destination for Afghans. Officials say the Taliban managed to enter the area by coming from the west, allowing them to avoid checkpoints that are pervasive deeper inside the capital.
“It’s a sign that Kabul is still insecure – whenever the insurgents want to go anywhere and attack, they can,” says Anwar Khan Oryakhail, a member of parliament from Kabul. “It’s the responsibility of the security organizations to be more alert and more active. Whenever there is an attack, afterwards the security organizations say they had intelligence reports. They should be ready and stop the attacks before the insurgents arrive at their targets.”
Afghan security forces have responsibility for security in Kabul, but they can call on NATO forces for assistance if needed. NATO helicopters provided support during Friday’s battle, but the operation was Afghan-led.
Prior to Friday, Kabul suffered its most recent attack on April 15 when insurgents managed to conduct 18 hours of attacks from several locations throughout the city, as well as three provinces in eastern Afghanistan. Though the number of insurgents killed in the attack was more than double the number of civilians or security forces killed, it succeeded in creating deep concerns about the stability and security of Afghanistan.
*Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.