KABUL, Afghanistan – American officials Wednesday blamed the bold attack on the U.S. Embassy on a Pakistan-based group allied with the Taliban, acknowledging that the assault brought a propaganda victory for the insurgents even as they played down its military significance.
The attack underscored holes in Afghan security: Six fighters with heavy weapons took over an unfinished high-rise that authorities knew was a perfect roost for an attack on the embassy and NATO headquarters about 300 yards away. They then held out against a 20-hour barrage by hundreds of Afghan and foreign forces.
It appeared likely that either weaponry had been stored in the 12-story building ahead of time or that some insurgents had entered in advance with a supply of guns and ammunition.
By the time the fighting ended at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the insurgents had killed 16 Afghans – five police officers and 11 civilians, more than half of them children. Six or seven rockets hit inside the embassy compound, but no embassy or NATO staff members were hurt. All 11 attackers – including four suicide bombers who targeted police buildings elsewhere in the city – were killed, authorities said.
Although the Taliban claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s assault, U.S. and Afghan officials said the Haqqani network likely carried it out on their behalf. The Haqqanis have emerged as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s stability, working from lawless areas across the border in Pakistan’s tribal region.
“It’s tough when you’re trying to fight an insurgency that has a lot of support outside the national borders,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said. “It’s complicated, it’s difficult but clearly for a long-term solution those safe havens have to be reduced.”
U.S. officials have been pressing Pakistan to go after Haqqani militants. But relations with Islamabad have not been good, particularly after the U.S. raid in May that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Crocker said Tuesday’s attack would not affect the transfer of security responsibilities from the U.S.-led military coalition to the Afghan security forces. Foreign forces are to completely withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
“This really is not a very big deal,” Crocker said. “If that’s the best they can do, you know, I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness.”