KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban insurgents struck the heart of the Afghan capital and three eastern cities Sunday, firing automatic weapons and grenades at embassies, government buildings and NATO bases as they launched the spring fighting season with the boldest and most complex assault in years.
The multipronged attacks show the Taliban and their allies are far from beaten and underscored the security challenge facing government forces as U.S. and NATO forces draw down. The majority of international combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014.
The first blasts rocked the diplomatic quarter of Kabul on Sunday afternoon, and soon gunshots and rocket-propelled grenade fire were ringing out across the city. Smoke rose over the skyline as sirens wailed. A loudspeaker at the U.S. Embassy could be heard barking: Duck and cover. Move away from the windows.
One police officer and 17 militants were killed in the attacks, the most widespread in the Afghan capital since an assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last September blamed on the Haqqani network, an insurgent group in Pakistan allied with the Taliban. Fighting continued more than 12 hours after the first blasts, with explosions echoing into the night.
The sophistication and firepower of the strikes, as well as the high-profile government and foreign targets, bore the marks of the attack last fall and others carried out by Haqqani insurgents.
As in the earlier attack, armed insurgents took over half-built buildings Sunday and used them to fire down on nearby embassies and bases. In the streets of Kabuls Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where a NATO base and a number of embassies, including the U.S. Embassy, are located, residents scrambled for cover as gunfire rained down from all directions.
Militants also attacked a NATO site on the outskirts of Kabul, where a joint Greek-Turkish base came under heavy fire and forces responded with heavy-caliber machine guns. A police officer said a suicide bomber inside a building near the base was shooting toward the Kabul Military Training Center.
The eastern cities of Jalalabad, Gardez and Pul-e-Alam also came under attack, with suicide bombers trying to storm NATO bases.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said dozens of suicide attackers and gunmen were sent into four provinces in an assault that had been planned for two months to show the extent of the insurgencys power after NATO commanders called the Taliban weak and said there was no indication they were planning a spring offensive.
We are strong and we can attack anywhere we want, Mujahid said, calling the attacks an opening salvo ahead of the yearly spring offensive, when warmer weather typically brings increased attacks.