A Taliban attack against a popular Kabul restaurant killed 21 people, officials said Saturday, in the deadliest attack against foreign civilians since the war began nearly 13 years ago.
The dead from Friday's assault against La Taverna du Liban included 13 foreigners and eight Afghans, all civilians, in an attack that could mark a pivot point for international organizations operating in Kabul. It came as security has been deteriorating and apprehension has been growing among Afghans over the future security of their country as U.S.-led foreign forces prepare for a final withdrawal at the end of the year.
Those killed included two U.S. citizens working for the American University of Afghanistan, a victim identified by the United Nations as a Somali-American, two Britons — development specialist Dharmender Singh Phangura and close protection officer Simon Chase — two Canadians, two Lebanese, a Danish police officer, a Russian, a Malaysian and a Pakistani. Phangura, who along with the Malaysian worked as an adviser for Adam Smith International, was to run as a Labour Party candidate in upcoming elections for the European Parliament.
Also among the dead were the International Monetary Fund's Lebanese representative, Wabel Abdallah, and Vadim Nazarov, a Russian who was the chief political affairs officer at the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan. Nazarov was one of the U.N's most experienced officials, fluent in the country's languages and with experience dating back to the 1980s. He was one of three U.N. victims.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in reprisal for an Afghan military operation earlier in the week against insurgents in eastern Parwan province, which the insurgents claimed killed many civilians. The Taliban frequently provide exaggerated casualty figures.
"The target of the attack was a restaurant frequented by high-ranking foreigners," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an emailed statement. He said the attack targeted a place "where the invaders used to dine with booze and liquor in the plenty."
He described the "revenge attack" as having delivered a "heavy admonitory blow to the enemy which they shall never forget."
The deaths have shaken Kabul's tight-knit expatriate community, which frequented a handful of restaurants such as Taverna that were considered relative safe in Kabul's often insecure streets. The deadliest previous attack against foreign civilians was in Sept. 8, 2012, when nine civilian employees of a private aviation company were killed in a suicide attack happened near Kabul airport. They included eight South Africans and a Kyrgyz.
Such attacks in the past have prompted a mass exodus of foreign staff from the country, and the insecurity has been compounded by the refusal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a security deal with the United States that would keep about 10,000 troops here for up to 10 more years.
Although a national assembly of elders endorsed the deal last year, Karzai is deferring its signature until after the April 5 presidential elections — which the United States has said may not give it enough time to plan and could lead to a pull out of all troops.
An indication of the testiness in relations was apparent in Karzai's condemnation of the attack, which came almost a day after it took place.
In what was essentially a political statement, Karzai said the U.S. was not doing enough to deal with terrorism in Afghanistan and said its policies so far had not been successful.
"If NATO forces and in the lead the United States of America want to cooperate and be united with Afghan people, they must target terrorism," he said without fully elaborating on what America should be doing. He added that America had followed a "policy which has caused many scarifies in Afghanistan and was not successful in the past decade."
The attack also was condemned by the U.N. Security Council, NATO and the European Union.
The restaurant, like most places frequented by foreign diplomats, aid workers, journalists and businessmen in the war-weary country, has no signs indicating its location and is heavily secured. It sits on a small side street just off a bumpy semi-paved road in a house with low ceilings and an enclosed patio but has no windows.
Bags of dirt are piled up around it to act as blast walls and guests must go through a series of steel airlocks, where they are searched, before entering. The surrounding area is full of police and security guards to protect against insurgent attacks, which have increased in recent months around the country.
"The restaurant was known to be one of the more secure in the area and has therefore been given a green-light by many expatriate and official organizations," said Michael Smith, the president of the American University of Afghanistan.