Monday, April 28, 2008

Taliban remain a disruptive force in Kabul

April 27 is the Victory Day holiday when Afghans celebrate their liberation from communist rule. A military parade yesterday at the main stadium in Kabul was supposed to highlight the national celebration, but instead an attack by the Taliban disrupted the event. Three Afghans died in the rifle and explosives barrage, including a ten-year old boy. Several others suffered wounds. It’s unclear if President Hamid Karzai was the target of the attack, as he was forefront on the main reviewing stand when the attack took place, along with many other Afghan leaders and foreign diplomats; but those men were unharmed. If the Taliban were aiming for Karzai or the main stage, then they are very poor shots. If they simply wanted to disrupt the event to illustrate their ability to infiltrate the security of Afghan defense forces, then they accomplished their goal.

I knew several people who attended the event. The day prior, I asked around for an official invitation for myself, but I didn’t inquire very earnestly about attending the celebration as many people suspected the Taliban would try to disrupt the parade; and usually the increased threat that insurgents will target a route or gathering prompts the US military to declare that site off-limits to all of us. First-hand reports I received from attendees confirmed news reports that considerable confusion surrounded the attack initially. Small arms fire errupted across the parade ground in front of the reviewing stand just as a twenty-one gun salute began during a rendition of the Afghan national anthem. A friend in another bleacher section told me he knew something started to go wrong, but he wasn’t sure what, when he heard people yelling to get down and then his section of US military guests, all of whom had been disarmed before they entered the bleachers, cleared the area quickly and hurried back to their vehicles and exited the stadium.

He recalled that most Afghans around him, while well aware that an attack was taking place, were amazingly calm. People were exiting at a brisk pace, but not running or panicked. An Afghan in front of him smoked a cigarette as he walked out of the stadium. Below is a link to a CNN video of the event that is remarkable for the nonchalance exhibited by the Afghan leaders and dignitaries who shared the stage with President Karzai, most of whom simply sat down once the attack began and appeared content to wait out the action in their chairs. The majority of Afghans seated to the lower right of the primary dias, where gunshots appear to hit at least one man in the front row, didn’t flee either. A few of them actually stood up and pointed to the direction of the gunfire. I don’t know if these guys are warlords and accustomed to small arms fire; or believers that, inshallah, they would survive this nuisance just as they had survived the Taliban before. All I know is that I was mightily impressed with their composure, and now that I’ve learned just a bit about the Afghan temperament and their customs, I would bet that if the skirmish lasted more than a few minutes they would have demanded that tea be served while they observed the gunfire below them.

CNN video of event:

Unaware of the disruption at the parade taking place less than two miles from my secure base, I was in the basement of the Post Exchange shop searching for an electrical adapter for my laptop computer when a store employee started yelling for everyone to clear the building. It was approximately 10 am and, I thought, fairly early for the shop to be closing, even on an Afghan holiday. After I climbed the stairs and proceeded to the door, I heard the base alarm blaring and people scurrying in every direction. I hadn’t heard the alarm before, but I knew it signaled either an actual attack or an attack drill; and either way I needed to get myself to the nearest mortar shelter. I ran by a military policeman ten yards outside the shop door who was yelling “This is NOT a drill! This is NOT a drill!” I picked up my speed after hearing that, and was in a mortar shelter in about three seconds.

The shelters are long, rectangular boxes of thick concrete with benches that seat twenty to thirty people seated back-to-back. Once inside, I heard an announcement over the base intercom reporting that this was indeed a drill, leaving me confused. A contractor with a cell phone called a buddy of his who was attending the parade and we then learned that an attack of some sort had disrupted the event. As more people streamed into the bunker, I heard rumors of a US convoy encountering an IED nearby and that a multi-national base very near ours was taking mortar fire. At this point, I was more curious than nervous, and I sat waiting for either an explosion or the “all clear” call. Thankfully, after fifteen minutes we got the announcement that we were safe to leave the shelters.

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