The Kabul Bombing: It Could Have Been Us

It's was more than eerie for NEWSWEEK reporter Sami Yousafzai and me to stand in the once green garden, where we used to drink tea, and look into the shattered, ground-floor hotel rooms where we used to stay. Our flight from Islamabad had arrived nearly three hours late the day before, causing us to worry that the newer hotel we were booked into would not have rooms for us. In that case, we had told each other: no problem, we'll just go to the Park Residence, which now lies in ruins. "What if?" we asked each other.

The rosebushes in the front of our old rooms were charred black by the blast from a Taliban suicide bomber who had detonated his deadly explosive vest as a police commander and his two bodyguards pursued him into the garden early this morning. The blast killed both bodyguards and severely wounded the senior police officer, and it obliterated the rooms surrounding the garden, reducing them to just a jumble of bricks, mattresses, bedding, and broken furniture. At least 18 people were killed.

In the hotel's reception, turned topsy-turvy, spent AK-47 shell casings littered the floor, fired by the suicide attacker who shot at everyone he saw before exploding himself. Sami and I embraced several of the hotel's rain-soaked staff, thankful that these young men, whom we knew so well, had survived. An acting senior minister who had been a good source and was staying at the hotel also survived, with only his right arm cut by flying glass. He praised God that he had not been killed. Ibrahim, a young man who had befriended us in the past, then told us the good and the bad news. He said that while none of the staff had died, the victims included foreign visitors staying there, mostly from India, but also from France and Italy. Another staffer complained that the police had stolen mobile phones and computers from the rooms in the aftermath.

We had felt a loyalty for years to the Park, which was one of the best places to stay in Spartan Kabul just after the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001. The rooms were basic, but the staff was friendly and helpful, the food was not bad, and laundry was free. It seemed then that, with a profile this low, it would be safe; no American or NATO militaryman or anyone else important ever stayed there. But with the construction boom in Kabul over the past few years, we began staying just down the block at the Central Hotel, a new six-story building with good air conditioning, central heating, and reliable Internet. Still, we felt guilty about abandoning the Park for a less friendly but more comfortable and modern spot. The rubble erased that guilt.

The Taliban have brought the war to Kabul's center once again. But this attack affected us emotionally more than others. The insurgents have struck the posh Serena Hotel where visiting dignitaries and foreign TV crews stay. They have attacked the Indian Embassy twice, killing dozens with a suicide car bombing in 2008 and 17 more in another attack last year. They assaulted a U.N. guesthouse last year, which led to an evacuation of a large portion of the U.N. staff. Just over a month ago, Taliban gunmen attacked a downtown shopping center, just around the corner from the heavily guarded presidential palace. They've even launched a salvo on a National Day parade attended by President Hamid Karzai, sending him fleeing for cover.

Sami and I knew all this, and we knew the Taliban could hit almost any place they wanted at will. But that knowledge had no immediate reality. Until today, when they struck a place we once considered our home away from home, it was just an abstraction to us—another part of the war we cover. Today's attack seemed to shake us by the lapels and show us how drastically security has deteriorated over the past few years.

It was a coordinated, well-planned attack carried out by some five Taliban gunmen who were clearly bent on killing foreigners. Their three targets—the Park Residence guesthouse, the modern high-rise mall and hotel complex next door, and a smaller guesthouse just across the street—had clearly been well reconnoitered. It seemed the insurgents were looking for foreigners to kill. Perhaps Indians were the main target. But the gunmen did not discriminate.

The gunmen went about their deadly business with precision. At 6:30 this morning I was asleep in my room and Sami was working online when the huge blast occurred. Sami ran up to the Central Hotel's glassed-in terrace restaurant and could see the smoke rising from the initial car bombing. The Afghan police and private Afghan security guards were running in the street, firing seemingly at random. Sami, usually very coolheaded, rang my room, asking if I was OK. He described what he was seeing in the street. He sounded very worried.

As we pieced together the operation, we learned that the insurgents arrived in a car just before 6:30 a.m. Friday and parked it in front of the smaller Euro Guest House, frequented by foreigners—along a narrow street just before it dead-ends into the Park Residence and the Kabul City Center mall. One or two gunmen stayed with the car, while the others headed for the Park Residence and the mall.

The insurgents then detonated the car bomb in front of the Euro Guest House, reducing much of it to a smoking pile of rubble. The blast blew a crater six feet deep and six feet by 12 feet wide. A suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest then ran into the Euro courtyard and blew himself up, causing further damage.

Meanwhile, the attacker heading for the Park Residence fired an RPG at the armed guards protecting the gate, clearing the way for him to enter. Next door at the Kabul City Center, the gunmen blasted their way inside, shattering its green-glass façade. The building housed the most modern shopping mall in Afghanistan and even boasted a glass-enclosed elevator in the atrium, and an escalator that Afghans from the provinces used to come to marvel at.

The large explosions—there were at least three—broke windows as far as two or three blocks away. As we walked down the street toward the carnage from our hotel, the sidewalks near the targets resembled rivers of broken glass. I felt nauseated as I spotted the puddles of blood-stained rainwater in the street. Another wave hit me as I watched firemen bring out a headless and limbless torso from the smoldering ruins of the first guesthouse that was attacked, followed by a leg with a shoe still on the foot, and another leg with a bare foot. I have covered wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Central America, but never have I been as shaken as I was this morning.

As we stood there on the fringe of a park studded with tall, old pine trees, the Taliban spokesman called Sami's cell phone claiming responsibility for the attack. We suddenly began wondering if anywhere is safe in the city. Or anywhere in the country, for that matter. "Where should we stay next time?" we asked each other. If the city is dangerous, the countryside is even more so. We began to worry each other.

Back at our hotel, the Central, the duty manager sounded almost boastful as he described how his private security guards had driven off with a fusillade of gunfire a Toyota Corolla that was headed toward the hotel this morning. Half frightened, half proud of his guards' efforts, he said our own hotel had also been a Taliban target this morning. We stared at him in disbelief. He replied that he'd show us the closed-curcuit TV video from an outside camera to prove it.

We felt frightened. Were we overreacting, we wondered? Or just being smart? We thought of the irony that as President Barack Obama pours 30,000 more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan and billions more in resources into Afghanistan this year, and as the U.S. Marines enter into the mopping-up phase of their offensive in the southern town of Marja, the Taliban seem unfazed, and able and willing to attack Kabul at the time and place of their choosing.

We've watched security steadily deteriorate around the country ever since 2005. About two years ago Sami was able to take me to meet Taliban fighters in their hideouts just 100 miles south of Kabul. No more. Now even he is reluctant to enter areas of Taliban control and is extra-careful moving about the countryside. Are we being prudent or just becoming fainthearted?

President Karzai and foreign leaders may talk about peace and reconciliation, but after what we saw this morning, Sami and I came to realize that Afghanistan may be more dangerous than ever, and an end to hostilities further away than ever.