, KABUL, Jan 19 – The Afghan capital was on high alert on Tuesday after one of the most dramatic attacks on Kabul since the hardline Islamist Taliban were thrown from power more than nine years ago.
The authorities are likely to face questions about how the militants were able to penetrate the highly-fortified heart of Kabul, although top US and NATO officials hailed local security forces for their defence of the capital.
Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers launched a series of attacks Monday on commercial and government buildings and fought running gun battles with security forces, leaving five people dead and sending residents fleeing.
Militants managed to breach the city\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s security cordon as President Hamid Karzai was swearing in new members of his cabinet, part of the painfully slow process of forming a government since the fraud-tainted election last year.
The attacks, the most spectacular since the Taliban laid siege to government buildings in February 2009 and killed 26 people, have left the commercial heart of the city looking like a disaster zone, with buildings burned out and roads strewn with debris.
One child was killed, along with four members of the security forces, and more than 70 people were wounded after more than three hours of bombings and street battles, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said.
Seven militants were also killed, either blowing themselves up or shot dead by the security forces.
"Our security measures are always strict, we are always on high alert, and we will be tomorrow, and after," interior ministry spokesman Zamary Bashari said Monday.
The attack throws into question Karzai\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s plans to bring the Taliban in from the cold by offering fighters economic incentives to put down arms and reintegrate into mainstream Afghan society.
He is due to announce new reconciliation plan ahead of a major international conference on Afghanistan set for London on January 28, but Monday\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s attack has cast doubt on its chances for success.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Monday said it was unlikely Taliban leaders would reconcile with Afghanistan\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s government, though lower ranks — those who fight for cash rather than ideology — might be open to making peace.
Taliban chief Mullah Omar and other leaders would be reluctant to lay down their arms until circumstances changed on the battlefield, he told reporters travelling with him on a trip to India.
"I\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’d be very surprised to see a reconciliation with Mullah Omar," he said.
"I think it\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s our view that until the Taliban leadership sees a change in the momentum and begins to see that they are not going to win, that the likelihood of reconciliation at senior levels is not terribly great," he said.
But he added that "we may see a real growth of reintegration at the local district and provincial level" as insurgents "come under pressure and know they\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’re not going to win".
The capital has avoided many of the bloodiest attacks waged by the Islamist militants since they launched an insurgency against the government and foreign troops after the toppling of the Taliban regime in the 2001 US-led invasion.
US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the 113,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban under US and NATO command, condemned the attacks while praising the actions of the Afghan security forces.
"Today\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s attack by the Taliban in Kabul is yet another example of their brutality and contempt for the Afghan people," McChrystal said in a statement.
His remarks were echoed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The attackers "made it clear, in their choice of targets, that their aim is to reverse the progress that Afghans are making in building better lives and a better future," he said.
The foreign minister of Australia, which has around 1,500 troops in southern Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest, said the insurgents\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’ intention was clear — "to go right to the heart of the new Karzai government in Kabul".
"Afghanistan continues to be very difficult and very dangerous," Stephen Smith said.