Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Taliban's grim message from Kabul

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News

Smoke billows from a shopping mall as Afghan policemen take position in a public market building during clashes between Taliban-linked militants and security forces on January 18, 2010 in Kabul
One of Kabul's few shopping malls was destroyed by fire in the attack

Monday's attack on buildings in Kabul that killed five people and injured 71 shattered the calm of a winter's day. But what did it tell Kabul residents and those watching from afar?

The assault was audacious, suicidal, disturbing. It shattered the calm of a winter's day in Kabul.

The crack of gunfire and thud of explosions reverberated for hours across the Afghan capital. Black plumes of smoke engulfing the city centre sent a dark message around the world.

What did it tell Kabul residents and those who watched from afar?

That militants prepared to die can and will penetrate the very heart of Kabul, only a mad dash from the highly-fortified presidential palace.

But Afghan security forces did battle - and prevailed.

"It's a very vulnerable situation," remarked one government minister who watched the violent drama unfold from the windows of his office. Several gunmen, breathtakingly close, took up positions on the roof of a nearby building.

Speaking by telephone shortly after the gunfire subsided, he called it "very well organised… widespread".

Afghan security forces take position in a public market during clashes between Taliban-linked militants and security forces on January 18, 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghan troops faced a test - but swiftly regained control

Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai, who was also in the area at the time, vented her anger over yet more suffering inflicted on civilians.

Three Afghan soldiers, and two civilians including a child, were killed. Officials maintain none of the attackers, said to be Taliban, survived.

"It will cast a shadow over the international conference in London next week," said Ms Barakzai. The gathering is meant to send a signal to Afghans and the world that the government in Kabul is taking charge, tackling security and governance.

Only the day before, visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband pointed to Afghan control of the capital's security as proof it could and would be done, slowly but surely, across the entire country.

'Did not succeed'

Afghan forces took on up to 20 gunmen and suicide bombers on this dark day. There may have been many fewer militants - the exact number is not clear.

15 Dec 09: Six killed in suicide attack near hotel in Wazir Akbar Khan district
24 Oct 09: Six UN staff and three Afghans killed in attack on UN guesthouse
8 Oct 09: Suicide bomber attacks Indian embassy, killing at least 17
17 Sept 09: Six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghans die in military convoy blast
18 Aug 09: Suicide blast kills 10 in attack on convoy of Western troops
11 Feb 09: Assault on three government buildings kills 27, including eight attackers

Within hours, troops had brought the situation under control. No government buildings were stormed in the central area around Pashtunistan square which also includes the Central Bank and key ministries.

The heavily-guarded Serena Hotel, with its own rapid response team and evacuation plan, was not penetrated as it was in January 2008. Even though it has come under attack a few times this year, mostly by rockets which missed their mark, it still remains one of the few hotels foreign visitors feel safe in.

"Attacks like this will happen," remarked one Western diplomat. "But this one did not succeed."

One Western intelligence assessment put it at "the upper end of the militants' capability in Kabul". This kind of bold assault is only being mounted about once a year.

The multi-pronged attack on the Serena in 2008 exposed a shocking new level of sophistication and planning among Taliban forces and their allies. February 2009 revealed much the same when gunmen simultaneously stormed a number of government buildings in Kabul.

That attack, in its early stages, seemed reminiscent of the horrifying siege in Mumbai (Bombay) a few months earlier. But it was short-lived.

In between these spectacular attacks, there were other breaches of security, including the attack on a UN guesthouse in October, the Indian embassy and another hotel frequented by foreigners.

Winter is traditionally not a time of fighting in Afghanistan, when heavy snows block the mountain passes and forces pause to regroup. That's changing.

But most of the attacks still take place in the provinces. Kabul is not Baghdad which has been, at times, the main locus of violence in Iraq.

Turning the tide

While these latest gun battles raged for hours, a meeting on the international conference in London involving Afghan and foreign aid agencies continued in a neighbourhood where the violent din was distinct and for some, distressing.

There was frantic text messaging and telephone calls to check on family and friends. But the meeting went on. "It put a damper on things, but we did not feel threatened," said one British national.

"That's what life is like," shrugged one Afghan with a trademark stoicism. "We're used to it."

One Western military source who downplayed the security significance of this latest attack conceded it could shake confidence - among Afghans, among aid agencies. It's not the first time this strategic centre has been infiltrated and its not likely to be the last.

That matters. President Karzai is trying to bolster public support after a controversial re-election. Nato-led security forces talk of a new military strategy whose focus is "protecting the population". Tens of thousands of extra troops will soon be deployed.

One of the new buzz words is "optics". The London conference is meant to be the first of what will be many choreographed steps this year to start convincing Afghans and their allies that the Nato-backed government is winning this war.

Turning the tide is key to keeping Afghans on side, and persuading lower ranking Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and "reintegrate".

But the Taliban have made it clear again they have very different optics of their own.

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