Afghanistan Taliban launch ‘spring offensive’
KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban-led insurgents opened a spring offensive Sunday with a wave of coordinated suicide missions, firing at embassies and government offices from seized buildings in Kabul and attacking U.S. bases and police stations in three eastern provinces.
The strikes, which seemed to catch U.S.-led forces and Afghan authorities by surprise, sparked fierce firefights in Kabul and two other cities.
“This is the start of the spring operations,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, declared in a telephone interview. “This is just the beginning.”
The attacks lasted past nightfall in Kabul and Puli Alam, the capital of neighboring Logar province, At least 26 insurgents and four civilians were killed, Afghan and NATO officials said. At least 36 others, mostly civilians, were wounded. All of the casualties were Afghans. Some of the attackers were captured.
The attacks, Mujahid said, were “a message” in response to recent assertions by U.S. officials and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen “that there would be no spring offensive because we are not able to fight.”
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, issued a statement calling the strikes “largely ineffective.”
In a separate statement, the ISAF commander, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, praised the response of Afghan security forces. The insurgents’ choice of targets, he added, “speaks volumes about where we are in this campaign” to crush the insurgency and create a “sovereign Afghanistan responsive to its people.”
But while the violence brought them no military gains, the insurgents demonstrated their ability once again to stage complex operations inside the security rings of Kabul and other government centers that will without doubt stoke fears of continued turmoil after U.S. and allied combat forces are gone at the end of 2014.
The audacious attacks – mirroring a September incident in which insurgents seized an unfinished high-rise building and fired into the U.S. Embassy compound for nearly 24 hours before being killed by Afghan security forces – could also fuel demands in the United States and other NATO capitals to accelerate the withdrawal of international forces after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.
The violence in Kabul began with intermittent gunfire and then a series of window-shaking blasts around 1:15 p.m., disrupting a languid spring day. Traffic and pedestrians raced from the streets as police blockaded major thoroughfares, paralyzing the city center, and merchants gated their shops.
Four groups of insurgents were involved in the Kabul strikes, police said. A team of two suicide bombers and a guide, however, were arrested before they could assassinate the country’s second vice president, Karim Khalili, said Lutfullah Mashal, the spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service.
One team stormed into an unfinished high-rise in the diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan and rained gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades at embassies, government buildings and counterattacking Afghan security forces.
Two rocket-propelled grenades streaked at the U.S. Embassy but didn’t land inside; a third exploded inside ISAF’s fortress-like headquarters by the rear gate without causing casualties.
Just before midnight, Hashmatullah Stanekzai, a Kabul police spokesman, said three of the attackers had been killed and “two or maybe three are still resisting.” However, sporadic violence continued into this morning, with blasts and gunfire erupting in Kabul around 1:30 a.m. Stanekzai said police commandos were assaulting the remaining insurgents holed up in the high-rise in Wazir Akbar Khan and near the parliament.