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Monday, January 20, 2014

‘Brutal Massacre’ Of Civilians Unsettles Western Agencies In Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers inspect the scene of a suicide attack outside a base in Zhari district, Kandahar province on January 20, 2014. (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. soldiers inspect the scene of a suicide attack outside a base in Zhari district, Kandahar province on January 20, 2014. (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images)

NATO forces repelled a Taliban attack on a Western base today in the Southern Afghan province of Kandahar that killed one coalition soldier. All nine Taliban fighters, along with two Afghan civilians were killed in the battle.

That attack comes after a suicide bombing on Friday in Kabul that killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. NPR’ Sean Carberry tells Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti that the attack was “unprecedented.”

“This really is the first time that a purely civilian area, a restaurant where international and Afghan people go, has been targeted like this. It was a really brutal massacre of these people who were there.”

The Taliban took credit for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for a coalition strike on Wednesday that killed civilians in a village north of Kabul. While NATO and Afghan officials have very different narratives of that air strike, the general consensus is that the Taliban had planned this suicide attack on civilians in Kabul well in advance.

International agencies including the U.N. are re-examining safety policies today, and foreign workers are wondering if it’s safe to stay in the country, as Western troops prepare to leave this year.

Guest

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, the controversial thinking that women in particular may be able to cut back their drinking rather than cut it out entirely.

CHAKRABARTI: But first we got to Afghanistan, where NATO forces repelled a Taliban attack on a Western base today. One coalition soldier and two Afghan civilians were killed in the battle. And today's attack comes after the suicide bombing on Friday in Kabul that killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. International agencies, including the U.N., are re-examining security measures today, and foreign workers are wondering if it's safe to stay in the country.

NPR's Sean Carberry joins us from Kabul, and Sean, let's start with the attack today. It was against a base in southern - excuse me, in the southern province of Kandahar. That's a Taliban stronghold, is it not?

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Yes, and in fact in an area that's considered the birthplace of the Taliban. The attack followed very similar patterns of attacks that they stage on bases. They started with a suicide car bomb outside the base to try to open an entrance in the gate, and then eight gunmen with suicide vests, reportedly wearing NATO uniforms, tried to fight their way in.

They were killed in a gunfight and did not enter the base. In the initial explosion, however, one NATO service member was killed.

CHAKRABARTI: So another very violent attack. Let's turn back to the one that happened on Friday in Kabul, Sean, which killed, what, 21 people, 13 of them foreigners at a restaurant popular with foreigners in Kabul. What's the mood there today?

CARBERRY: Well, it's been pretty somber since the attack. This was something very much unprecedented here. I mean, obviously there are attacks in Kabul periodically. They tend to be attacks on government buildings, military installments. Civilians have been killed, but this really is the first time that a purely civilian area, a restaurant where international and Afghan people go, has been targeted like this.

It really, it was a brutal massacre of these people who were there, and, you know, people are concerned about whether or not this is an aberration, this is a one-off attack or whether this signals that there's a change in Taliban tactics, and they are going to start going after civilians in Kabul or other parts of the country.

So there's a lot of anxiety about that, a lot of questions about what new security protocols people need to put into effect, and obviously people are - many people are devastated because a lot of people knew the people who were killed. I mean, these were U.N. officials, International Monetary Fund, teachers at the American University of Afghanistan. So these were people known to the community here. So this hit home pretty hard.

CHAKRABARTI: I understand that the Taliban say that this attack was in retaliation for a coalition airstrike last Wednesday which struck a village north of Kabul. But Western officials say that this attack on the restaurant had to have more planning than just two days. So, first of all, is it more disturbing that the plan might have actually been older than two days or that possibly the Taliban could do something in a 48-hour time period?

CARBERRY: Well, most people here seem to think that this is something that had been planned farther out. There are questions as to whether or not there was even someone inside that might have tipped them off as to who was there. So the general consensus is this is not something that they came up with in two days to respond to this airstrike incident, which by the way is a very controversial incident with very different narratives from the Afghan government and from NATO.

President Karzai has been using this airstrike to denounce the U.S. once again, saying that all raids on Afghan homes and airstrikes must stop before there's any chance of the country signing a security agreement. So there's sort of a heady mix of issues right now between the countries, and, you know, this attack comes in the middle of it. So it's a tough moment for the international community here.

CHAKRABARTI: Sean, tell us a little bit more about what President Karzai has been saying because I understand that he has likened the attack on the restaurant to exactly what you're saying, the strikes that have happened on civilian populations in Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: Yeah, his rhetoric has been getting more hostile. And he has been making accusations that the U.S. is not making a distinction between terrorists and victims when they're conducting operations here. Certainly it's been a long running issue. He's always been very upset about any civilian casualties, but the rhetoric is getting angrier, and even when he was denouncing the attack on the restaurant that killed civilians, both Afghan and foreigners, he still tried to inject political points there, criticizing the conduct of operations here. So it's really reaching a very nasty tone right now, and certainly Western officials are very concerned about where this is headed.

CHAKRABARTI: To that end, Sean, does any of this have an impact on the scheduled troop withdrawal from Afghanistan?

CARBERRY: At this point no. There's really been nothing that's come up in the last few months that's raised any possibility that the scheduled withdrawal would be altered. They're getting down to about 34,000 U.S. troops by next month. That will hold through the elections in the spring, and then the drawdown will continue through the summer.

Obviously the open-ended question still is whether or not there will be any troops here after the end of this year, since the security agreement has not been signed, and again, with the caustic rhetoric coming from the Karzai administration, there are serious questions as to whether or not that will get signed while he's in office.

CHAKRABARTI: Sean Carberry is NPR's correspondent in Kabul. Sean, thank you so much.

CARBERRY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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