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Taliban Attack On Election HQ Makes Good On Campaign Promise

Afghan special forces rush to the scene as Taliban militants attack the main Afghan election commission's headquarters on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday.
Anja Niedringhaus
Afghan special forces rush to the scene as Taliban militants attack the main Afghan election commission's headquarters on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday.

As officials from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission were about to announce the closing of several polling stations due to insecurity on Saturday, the Taliban reinforced the message by launching an attack on the IEC headquarters in Kabul.

The militant group has been issuing statements for months, saying the April 5 vote for a successor to President Hamid Karzai is a Western-backed sham election and they will stop at nothing to disrupt it by attacking election workers and infrastructure. They've even warned civilians that heading to polling stations on election day could be deadly.

In this latest attack, police said five gunmen wearing burqas stormed into a nearby building and took up positions where they launched rocket-propelled grenades and fired machine guns at the IEC compound. After a long gun battle, all the attackers were killed, and two police officers wounded, officials say.

An IEC spokesman reported no casualties among the election headquarter's staff, who were safely moved into bunkers during the attack.

Due to the IEC compound's proximity to the airport, all flights were grounded and at least one incoming flight has been diverted to Pakistan.

Large numbers of Afghan police and elite paramilitary units swarmed to the scene in eastern Kabul to engage the militants. It's a drill that Afghan police and security forces have been grown quite familiar with in recent weeks.

On March 20, four young gunmen smuggled pistols through multiple security checkpoints at the Serena Hotel in Kabul. Once inside the luxury hotel frequented by diplomats, international workers and well-to-do Afghans, the gunmen opened fire on diners. Police surrounded the hotel and engaged in a gunfight with the militants for a couple of hours.

The gunmen managed to kill a beloved Afghan journalist, his wife and two of his children. They also killed four foreigners, including an international election monitor. As a result, two of the three foreign election monitoring organizations pulled their people out of the country.

A few days later, the Taliban attacked an election commission office in western Kabul staffed entirely by Afghans. Again, police arrived and battled militants for more than three hours. The death toll that day: three civilians and two police.

On Friday, the Taliban attacked the guesthouse of the American NGO Roots for Peace, killing a young Afghan girl on the street and reportedly a driver sitting in a car outside. While the Taliban have been increasingly targeting Western civilians, that attack seemed odd given that Roots for Peace is a non-political organization that does demining and agricultural development work.

It appears the Taliban had the wrong house. In their statement claiming credit, they said they were attacking a church. Neighbors say the compound next to Roots for Peace houses some sort of mysterious Christian organization. Neighbors describe seeing Western children coming and going from the house and ceremonies taking place. Police evacuated roughly 20 Western adults and children from that compound.

Thanks to the presence of armed guards at the Roots for Peace house, the militants failed to injure or kill any of the workers in the house. Yet the increase in attacks targeting foreigners in Kabul this year has dramatically changed the landscape here.

Many international organizations are pulling their people out of the country through the initial election period; those who remain are operating under much higher security restrictions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.