KABUL, Afghanistan — Two security guards were killed and two other persons wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the gates of a hotel and shopping complex in downtown Kabul on Monday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, the second in the Afghan capital in just a little over two weeks. In a text message sent to several domestic and international media outlets, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said that the insurgents were making good on their repeated threats to target foreigners.
City Center, the site of the attack, was Kabul’s first “mall,” and is still a powerful symbol of Western-style affluence. The complex also houses the Safi Landmark, a four-star hotel that is popular with foreigners.
Initial reports indicated that several gunmen had penetrated the defenses at the gates of the complex and were inside City Center, an account denied by Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashary. In an interview with a local television station, he said that the suicide bomber was the sole attacker.
But many in the area heard gunfire from inside the complex, lasting up to 15 minutes. Police blocked off the area for several hours.
This is the second time that City Center has been attacked. Last February a series of blasts aimed at local guesthouses heavily damaged the outside of the shopping mall and blew out most of the complex’s emerald-green windows. It was several months before the hotel and the shopping center reopened their doors.
Since then, the capital had been fairly calm. But recently the insurgents have gone on the offensive.
Just over two weeks ago, an attacker armed with automatic weapons, grenades and a suicide vest struck a supermarket popular with foreigners. The final death toll stood at 14, including an Afghan family of six.
Following that incident, many in the international community hunkered down in guesthouses and heavily guarded complexes, forbidden from visiting restaurants or other spots where foreigners converge.
This second assault is likely to harden the restrictions on foreigners, widening the already vast chasm between international aid workers and the community they are supposed to be serving.
“(Foreigners) don't arrive in Afghanistan. They never get here. They get to some steel, isolated world where they are allowed to pontificate and dispense largesse,” fumed one foreign consultant, whose new position does not allow much freedom of movement.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and other major donors impose severe restrictions on their contractors, who can be penalized or even dismissed for ignoring the rules.
Foreigners who do not work for major government donors, on the other hand, have been spoiled in Kabul. There is a booming social scene, complete with bars and restaurants, any of which would make an easy target for terrorists. Surprisingly, none have been attacked, although many have received threats.
“They could get us out of here in a week if they wanted to,” remarked one foreign journalist.
But the sense of relative security in Kabul is being slowly eroded by the attacks. Twitchy guards with automatic weapons search backpacks and purses at the entrance to the remaining supermarkets, and it is difficult not to look over one’s shoulder while selecting cheeses and deli meats.
The choice of City Center as a target is significant. The complex, which sits almost exactly in the center of town, houses dozens of retail outlets, a coffee house and a nine-story hotel. Many of the city’s more sophisticated electronics stores are here — everything from Macintosh computers to external hard drives to portable DVD players are available inside the green glass walls. Clothing stores, jewelry shops, and pirate-DVD sellers abound.
Well-heeled Afghans and foreign techno-geeks prowl the corridors in search of Blackberrys or imported footwear; engaged couples browse the gaudy windows for the perfect wedding necklace.
That is all over, for now. It is not certain when City Center will reopen, or under what conditions.
It is also unclear how the stepped-up attacks will affect plans to hand over all security operations to Afghanistan’s own forces by 2014. While Afghan police assumed responsibility for Kabul in 2008, much of the rest of the country is patrolled by U.S. and NATO forces. Many doubt that the Afghan security services will be able to handle the task by that date.
The United States Embassy issued a statement Monday afternoon condemning the attack.
“The United States strongly condemns the suicide bombing that took place today at the Kabul City Center. Our thoughts are with the families of the two local security guards killed and two others wounded in this senseless act. The ruthless killing of innocent civilians is yet another indication of the brutality of the terrorists. The United States will continue to stand with our Afghan partners to defeat the scourge of terrorism,” the statement read.
For ordinary Afghans, the attack was just another indication of what they have claimed for years: things just keep getting worse.
“Afghanistan will never be better,” sighed Mohammad, a taxi driver, watching the local news on a portable television screen in his cab. “We just cannot seem to get it right.”