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. on 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.
Police could be seen clapping their hands in celebration on the roof of the high-rise. Others carried the mangled bodies of insurgents down flights of rough concrete stairs and piled them into the back of a waiting ambulance.
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.
Nearly all Taliban attacks in and around the Afghan capital have been executed by the Haqqanis, who are also allied with al-Qaida. The Haqqani network was also blamed for a weekend truck bombing in eastern Wardak province that wounded 77 U.S. soldiers.
"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.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the assault did not mean that Afghan security forces weren't doing their job, arguing that potential attacks are thwarted in Kabul nearly every day. However, he did allow that the violent standoff gave the Taliban the headlines they wanted.
"I'll grant that they did get an IO (Information Operations) win," Allen told reporters in the capital.
NATO's senior civilian representative, Simon Gass, called the attack "extremely frightening even for the citizens of Kabul."
Both men argued that the insurgents depend on these spectacular attacks because they can't take and hold ground.
"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."
The fighting around the high-rise at the Abdul Haq traffic circle finally ended about 9:30 a.m. after a night of roaring helicopters, gunshots and tracers streaking through the sky.
The Afghan Interior Ministry announced that the final two holdouts in the 12-story concrete building had been killed and police officers could be seen clapping their hands in celebration on the roof of the building.
But the coordinated strikes raised fresh doubts about the Afghans' ability to secure their nation as U.S. and other foreign troops begin to withdraw. Afghan forces have nominally been in control of security in the capital since 2008, but still depend heavily on foreign forces to help protect the city and assist when it comes under attack.
And spectacular attacks in the heavily guarded capital have now become more common. This week's strike was the third deadly attack in Kabul since late June.
No NATO or U.S. Embassy employees were hurt in the latest attack, though Crocker said six or seven rockets had hit inside the embassy compound. Four Afghans were wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade hit one of the embassy buildings, CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers in Washington.
The rockets were fired from far enough away that Crocker did not consider them a serious attack on the embassy, he said according to an interview transcript provided to journalists in the Afghan capital.
"We're still trying to count them up but I'd say roughly six, seven. But again, they were firing from at least 800 meters (874 yards) away and with an RPG that's harassment. That's not an attack," he said.