The Taliban insurgency struck at the heart of Kabul yesterday as a squad of gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a guesthouse used by UN staff, killing five of them and signalling a clear intent to wreck the new round of presidential voting.
The raid, which appeared to be coordinated with rocket attacks on another hotel used by foreigners, may not derail the new poll completely, but will almost certainly curtail the support the UN is able to provide. It could also prompt aid agencies and NGOs to scale back their operations or leave the country altogether.
"This is a very dark day for the UN in Afghanistan," Kai Eide, the UN head of mission in Afghanistan, said. There was no question of the UN ducking its support of the Afghan elections, he added, but there would be a review of security measures, with the organisation's security directorate expected to meet today.
The UN is understood to have asked the Ministry of Interior, which it depends on for security, to step up protection measures at all UN sites in Kabul. Whether the Ministry is actually capable of boosting security any further – Kabul is already dotted with checkpoints and blast barriers – is debatable.
A Taliban spokesman said the group had warned of attacks on anyone helping with the election. "This is our first attack," Zabiullah Mujahid said.
The UN provides enormous logistical support to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, runs the anti-fraud watchdog that invalidated over a million fake ballots, and mentors Afghan election officials. "Campaigning against the UN is going to fundamentally alter the situation in Afghanistan," a security analyst in Kabul said. "Now the UN has become a target because of the election. Provincial level activity is going to be significantly curtailed."
Although the UN has been targeted in Afghanistan before, this is the deadliest attack it has suffered since 2001. Among the victims were two officials from the agency working on elections, two from UNAMA, which runs the UN's political role in Afghanistan, and one from UNICEF. The US Embassy confirmed that one of the dead was an American national. Another is understood to be Filipino and three were African. At least six Afghans, including two of the attackers, died in the raid.
The militants struck just after the early morning call to prayer. Disguised as policemen, they shot their way into the compound, throwing grenades and killing two UN staffers as they came outside to investigate. They then detonated the explosives, setting fire to the three-storey building and sending some of the 30 guests scrambling to safety across the roof of a neighbouring building.
Separately, a rocket exploded inside the five-star Serena Hotel, the scene of an attack in 2008 when suicide bombers killed six people. No one was injured.
Security analysts said the guesthouse attack was well prepared. "They did quite some surveillance on this site," said one. "Having this level of knowledge, using Afghan National Police uniforms.... They knew the guards schedule. Smack bang in the middle of prayers."
The attack may have a heavy impact on aid agencies in the region. The last time foreign civilians were targeted in the capital, in 2008, several NGOs scaled back their operations. "There's going to be a bit of an exodus," one member of the aid community said. Others said resolve would not flag. "We're all trying to work as normal," Charlemagne Gomez, a friend of yesterday's victims, said.
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World, page 29