Afghan security doubts escalate after hotel attack

Nov 30, -0001
KABUL: The brazen Taliban attack on a landmark Kabul hotel this week, which left 21 people dead, has raised fresh questions over Afghan forces' ability to protect their country as US-led troops withdraw.
Despite help from a NATO helicopter and foreign special forces, it took four hours to quell the fierce assault by heavily armed militants who struck Tuesday night, underlining precarious security even in the heart of the capital.
One survivor, Aziz Ahmad, told AFP from his hospital bed that some Afghan police had run away from one of the nine suicide bombers in Tuesday's Intercontinental Hotel battle instead of shooting to protect civilians.
Another man, who he believed to be a police officer, had even swapped his police hat for a white hat typically worn by Afghans at prayer to divert attention from himself, Ahmad said.
"My brother shouted at him: 'Shoot him (the attacker), shoot him, give me your gun, I'll shoot him.' But he stood doing nothing," said an angry Ahmad, a businessman who suffered facial and leg injuries escaping from the attack.
"From what I saw that night, I personally don't trust the Afghan police."
His views are shared by many Afghans, who consider the force "corrupt, brutal and predatory", according to a report by the International Crisis Group published in November.
Kabul is the only city under Afghan security control, but a rise in attacks on government departments, and guest houses and shops used by Westerners in recent years, has chipped away at its reputation for relative safety.
On Tuesday night, nine attackers killed 12 people, including a Spanish pilot, and their ability to breach high security and wreak havoc at the hotel raises further, alarming questions about security in Afghanistan, experts said.
Ahmad was alerted to the attack when a man with a heavy machine gun began spraying people with bullets at the poolside restaurant where he was dining.
Three musicians playing classic Afghan melodies for the guests, who included Afghan officials attending a government conference on transition, were the first to be targeted, he said.
"It was a nightmare," Ahmad added.
Afghan forces had to call on a NATO helicopter gunship to end the attack, and dozens of commandos from New Zealand also joined the fight.
But NATO troops are preparing to hand responsibility for security to Afghans in another seven parts of the country, possibly from as soon as next month, ahead of a full combat drawdown by 2014.
In the attack's aftermath, Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised the security forces and reiterated his support for the transfer of responsibility for security from foreign to national forces, insisting they could cope.
"This incident and ones like this will not stop the transfer of responsibility to (national) security forces," he said.
US President Barack Obama also talked up the ability of national forces.
"Kabul is much safer than it was and Afghan forces in Kabul are much more capable than they were," he said, although it was unclear to which period he was referring.
He added the caveat: "That doesn't mean that there are not going to be events like this potentially taking place and that will probably go on for some time."
Experts are more sceptical.
Kabul-based Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group wrote in Foreign Affairs that the attack showed "just how precarious the situation remains, 10 years after the first US troops entered Afghanistan".
"With the White House announcement last week of plans to withdraw 33,000 US troops by September 2012, the long war appears to be entering its last years as far as the United States is concerned," she wrote.
"Most Afghans understand, however, that the fight will go on long after the last foreign troops leave and that plans for a transition to full Afghan control of security in 2014 are little more than a politically convenient fantasy."
Survivor Ahmad was even more blunt.
"I don't think Karzai can protect us people," he said. "He can protect himself at the palace. He's hiding in his palace and doesn't know what people go through." AGENCIES





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