KABUL (Reuters) - Two days after a 20-hour siege in Afghanistan’s fortified capital, security appeared to have lapsed back to normal, with just three policemen guarding the building from where insurgents showered the city’s diplomatic enclave with rockets and gunfire.
Corrugated iron sheeting surrounding the half-built multi-storey was unguarded on Friday, much the same as when militants launched their most complex, protracted and audacious attack on Kabul since the Taliban were toppled from power a decade ago.
One of three police officers at the site overlooking the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of NATO-led forces in the city’s diplomatic heart said there were normally supposed to be 12 policemen on guard.
But that had not been the case on Tuesday when seven insurgents wearing all-enveloping women’s burqas burst in driving a bomb-laden van, shooting dead two of three police guards before attacking prime targets from multiple floors.
“Some were out to lunch, others were at the police station. The insurgents were heavily armed, we didn’t have enough ammunition to take them on,” said the police officer, who requested anonymity.
NATO heaped praise on Afghan security forces for their handling of the siege, which went on through the night and ended on Wednesday morning when the last of the gunmen who had fended off Afghan and foreign troops and attack helicopters was finally killed.
Five police and 11 civilians, including children, were killed and 19 people wounded in the multi-pronged attacks, which included three suicide bombings — one prevented — at police compounds in western Kabul and close to the airport.
While accepting the assault was a serious incident, U.S. and NATO officials appeared to play down the security breach and said militants had gained global attention, but no new ground.
U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker said the attacks, during which six or seven rocket-propelled grenades landed in his embassy’s perimeter, was “not a big deal” and were likely carried out by the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied faction based on northwest Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
NATO’s civilian representative, Simon Gass, described it as a “fleeting event.”
Focus has since shifted to the debate over whether Afghanistan’s police and army can maintain security and hold off insurgents long after 2014, when the gradual withdrawal of foreign forces that began in July is due to end.
It has raised concern among residents that attacks on the capital may be part of a broader insurgent strategy following suicide bombings in June and August at the Intercontinental Hotel and the British Council that have questioned the commitment of security forces to protecting foreign premises.
At another high-rise under construction, Qasr Quzi Plaza, about 600-800 metres away from NATO and U.S. compounds, there was no security presence on Friday.
Just how the insurgents cleared nearby checkpoints in broad daylight is still a mystery, as is how a large stash of ammunition and arms could have been carried or stored inside the partially constructed 12-floor building.
Despite the high profile incident, no one seems to know who owned the building, which guards said had been left idle for more than a year.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said security measures in the capital were sufficient and had proven effective in foiling attacks.
“There is no need to have guards in front of every house and building, this is not usual,” he said.
“They are not able to attack any time they want. Our police and detectives are active and stop dozens of terrorist attacks every day in Kabul and other provinces.”
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Roberet Birsel