The Inter-Continental Hotel in the Karte Parwan district was built by UK investors in the 1960s. It was looted and stripped during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, underwent a multimillion dollar makeover a few years ago, and tonight was attacked by a group of armed gunmen, some reported to be wearing suicide vests.
Saad Mohseni, the businessman who runs Tolo TV, Afghanistan's largest station, wrote on his Twitter feed that the attack occurred as a wedding party gathered around the hotel's outdoor pool and another event was being held inside the hotel's ballroom. He wrote that the poolside guests were able to flee down a hillside to safety, but didn't appear to know the situation inside the hotel, beyond reporting that 10 people had died in the attack.
There were contradictory reports about whether the situation was under control. Afghan police told reporters on the scene shortly after midnight local time that it was, but they weren't allowing access. Others said firing could still be heard as this story was published.
Hussein Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, took to his Twitter feed to express condolences and outrage. "Our prayers and support for victims of latest terrorist attack in Kabul," he wrote. "Pakistan and Afghanistan need to fight the terrorist menace together."
Pakistan's partnership with both Afghanistan and the US has been under question in recent weeks. The fact that Osama bin Laden had been living unmolested in a Pakistani garrison town for years has fueled speculation that parts of the Pakistani security establishment knew where he was. Over the weekend, Pakistani President Asif Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended an Iran-sponsored summit on terrorism and regional security in Tehran. While there, Karzai complained to Zardari that his forces fire rockets into Afghanistan, a charge Zardari denied.
The Inter-Con is popular with rich Afghans and foreign workers alike. The hotel is built on a hillside and has vast grounds of its own, well away from the center of Kabul. Security at the hotel is usually extremely tight and nighttime attacks inside the city, when roadblocks are erected and frequent checkpoints have to be navigated, are almost unheard of.
The security is considered so good at the hotel on the hill that major press conferences are often held there. Seminars for foreign aid groups and US government organizations like USAID are also held at the hotel from time to time.
The approach up the hotel's long driveway involves zigzagging around concrete barriers, then stopping midway up. Usually, passengers exit the vehicle while police do a sweep of it and pat down the passengers. At the hotel entrance, another security check is done that involves x-ray scanners and a full patdown. Security checks can often be lackadaisical or perfunctory in this part of the world, but rarely, if ever, at the Inter-Con. Its position on a barren hill makes it easier to spot anyone approaching by another route. There will be questions about whether the attackers had inside help.
The Intercontinental attracts top expatriate guests, though it is less tony than the Serena Hotel, which itself has been targeted by assaults and rockets over the years. Such a major attack on a known foreigner haven would appear to be designed to offend the sensibilities of the US, which has begun peace talks with the Taliban.
The spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attack comes within days of President Obama's announcement that the US is going to start reducing its number of troops in Afghanistan, albeit slowly. The ability of the Taliban to strike withing the heart of the capital – it's at least the fifth such attack this year – speaks volumes about the security situation there.