The US has blamed the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network for Tuesday’s mutiple attacks on Kabul that left at least 16 people dead, including five policemen.
General John R Allen, the commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to the country, said on Wednesday that they believed the operation was launched by the Haqqani network, named after its leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“We believe by virtue of the complexity of the attack and the way it was executed, that this probably was a Haqqani instigated attack,” Allen said.
Allen dismissed the raid as a military failure but conceded that the hours of explosions and fierce gun battles were a propaganda victory for the Taliban.
“I’ll grant that they did get an IO (Information Operations) win,” he said.
Crocker also played down the attacks, saying that they were “really not a very big deal”.
The Haqqani network, which is based in Pakistan and has close relations with the Taliban, are thought to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, and are believed to have been behind many high-profile attacks in Kabul.
The marathon siege in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave ended with the killing of two gunmen who had fought off Western and Afghan forces for 20 hours and showered rockets on embassies.
The duo were the last survivors of a squad of about 10 fighters who launched the longest and most wide-ranging attack on the Afghan capital since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
The battle, which centered on the US embassy, was part of a wider operation that included three suicide attacks in other parts of the city.
At least 11 civilians were killed, more than half of them children, Allen said. Five policemen also died.
Some of the fighters had positioned themselves in part-built multi-storey building and launched their attack on Tuesday afternoon by firing rockets towards the US and other embassies and the headquarters of NATO-led foreign forces.
Crocker said that six or seven rockets had hit inside the embassy perimeter during the early hours of the attack, but the range meant they had not posed a serious threat.
“They were firing from at least 800 metres away and with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) – that’s harassment. That’s not an attack,” he said.
“If that is the best they can do, you know, I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness and more importantly, since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security, it is a real credit to the Afghan national security forces.”
The operation took place as foreign troops start handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces to pave the way for a full departure of NATO-led combat soldiers by the end of 2014.
US President Barack Obama has promised to withdraw 10,000 US troops by the end of the year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer. Other nations are mapping their own exits.
But the violence is at its worst level since US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties.
Afghan security forces backed by NATO and Afghan attack helicopters fought floor-by-floor in the multi-storey building, which six or seven fighters appeared to have booby-trapped.
They had arrived disguised as women under burqas, in a car packed with explosives, and entered the high-rise after shooting a security guard, officials said.
“As our country is traditional and Islamic, there is a special respect for women and the enemies exploited this to get to the building,” Ayoub Salangi, Kabul police chief, said.
The fighters then hid from helicopters and government and foreign troops in lift shafts and a maze of small rooms.
The group was armed with RPGs, AK-47 assault rifles and suicide bomb vests, a Taliban spokesman said.
Explosions were interspersed with gunfire all afternoon on Tuesday and went on past dawn on Wednesday.
Residents of nearby apartments stayed indoors and tried to comfort panicked children as helicopters flew low overhead.
“It would go silent for 30 to 35 minutes and then there were explosions and the sound of heavy machine guns,” a journalist for the Reuters news agency said.
The Haqqani network gets some support in territories on the Pakistani side of the border, although the Pakistani government has long dismissed suggestions of links between the group and its security agents.
Allen said the United States was pushing Pakistan to limit cross-border infiltration.
“We seek to have the Pakistani government place greater pressure on the Haqqani network, to keep them on the east side of the border, to keep them in Pakistan so we can prevent these kind of attacks, high-profile attacks,” he said.
Karim Pakzad, a researcher at the IRIS think-tank in Paris, said: “These attacks needed organisation, planning, bringing significant weapons … into the city and this can’t be done if there isn’t complicity with internal security forces.
“These areas are the most protected in Kabul.”