The Jan. 18 Taliban attack in central Kabul, Afghanistan, was a bold display of urban infiltration and tactical surprise on a busy Monday morning. Despite reports of initial chaos on the ground, however, Afghan security forces were able to end the attack and prevent the militants from achieving a high degree of well-publicized destruction. It could certainly have been a lot worse.
At approximately 9:35 a.m. local time on Jan. 18, the day Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet was to be sworn in, Taliban militants infiltrated Kabul and staged a series of attacks in the central part of the city. According to the Afghan Interior Ministry, the friendly death toll stands at seven, with 10 or 11 of the militants killed (according to the defense ministry). The exact sequence of the attacks is still unclear, and some of the targets appeared to have been hit simultaneously. The assault began with a large explosion near the presidential palace — likely a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). At about the same time, near Froshga market, a group of gunmen removed shawls they had been wearing to hide their weapons and suicide vests and divided into two teams. One team targeted the Central Bank, adjacent to the market, detonating their suicide vests outside and possibly inside the building while mounting an armed attack on the heavily guarded bank. (click image to enlarge) The other team entered the Grand Afghan Shopping Center, a new six-story structure situated among several government ministry buildings, took up positions on the roof and began firing automatic rifles at nearby targets, including the Central Bank, Serena Hotel, Afghan Telecom building and the Ministry of Justice. The gunmen holed up in the building were responsible for a great deal of the gunfire heard across the city, and their vantage point gave them a clear shot at nearby buildings. The shopping center itself was clearly a soft target for the militants. It is possible that the second team was providing cover fire for the first team as it tried and failed to breach the Afghan Central Bank, or that the team was trying to shoot and kill people in the area to maximize civilian casualties. However, it does not appear that they were able to take advantage of their position, given the failed attack on the Central Bank and the low overall death toll. Soon after, the shopping center caught fire, probably from an explosion set off by a suicide bomber or by grenades being thrown (militants were reportedly using both). This is the only building thought to have been seriously damaged during the attack. Many media reports seemed to indicate that other buildings were also burning, notably the neighboring Serena Hotel. However there was no evidence that the hotel (the target of attacks in 2008 and 2009) suffered any significant damage. At 10:30 a.m. local time, about an hour after the initial explosion, a second explosion occurred near Gulbahar Market, roughly a half mile from the shopping center. Early reports indicated that this explosion was also the result of a VBIED and that the vehicle was an army ambulance, which would have given the suicide bomber effective cover. Judging from photographs, however, the device was a relatively small one; no large blast seat is visible, and the frame of the vehicle is still somewhat intact. This suggests that this explosion was either the result of a small VBIED or a suicide vest worn by the driver. Three members of Afghan security forces were killed trying to stop the vehicle. The last reported attack occurred at Cinema Pamir, nearly a mile southwest of the shopping center. Gunmen entered the building and tried to hold it, but Afghan security forces managed to kill the militants and retake the building. The death toll has changed little since the attack ended, and photos and video from the scene do not reveal bodies left in the streets, which would suggest a higher number of casualties. It is still possible that the number could go up as rescue teams continue searching the area, but it seems as though this was not the catastrophic event the attackers hoped it would be. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed initially that 20 militants had been deployed for the attacks, although he also claimed that members of the Afghan government had been killed, which did not prove to be the case. Still, there is the possibility that some militants did escape, although — based on the modus operandi of past Taliban attacks — it is more likely that every militant was killed in the assault and ensuing firefights. Claiming that there were more militants than there actually were would also keep Afghan security forces distracted after the operation, looking for militants that do not exist. This is also the first time we have seen the Taliban use VBIEDs in conjunction with an armed assault in Kabul. They did so in Kandahar during the raid on Sarposa Prison, although the large truck bomb used in Kandahar was far more effective in penetrating the prison security perimeter than the small VBIEDs employed in Kabul. There were also sporadic reports of “rocket fire” in Kabul. A security source told Reuters that two rockets had landed in the city and a foreign guest staying at the Serena Hotel said that at least one rocket hit the hotel’s garden area. It is unclear if these "rockets" were artillery rockets, mortar rounds or shoulder-fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) — all established tools of the Taliban trade (militants in the attack were seen toting RPGs). If they were launching mortar rounds, however, which is something they have done before in Kabul, it would indicate an escalation in attack coordination. The Taliban are not known to stage combined-arms attacks in the capital, where tighter security complicates the coordination of such an attack and the dense urban setting hinders targeting. Despite the initial panic, this Kabul attack seemed tactically half-baked. It also vindicated Afghan security forces and the tactics and procedures they employ. Militants were prevented from smuggling in large explosive devices that would have caused more damage and were forced to use smaller, less noticeable (and less powerful) IEDs. The militants also were denied access to areas under guard and were unable to achieve the level of destruction and loss of life that would have generated the kind of international media attention that, say, the attacks in Mumbai did in 2008. Now that the dust has settled, it appears that the Kabul attack was very similar to (though less successful than) the February 2009 attack in Kabul in which militants actually gained entry into the Ministry of Justice and remained there for several hours. While the Taliban has, once again, proved they can reach into the country’s capital, Afghan security forces have proved they can respond and deny them their objectives.