New York Times – by AZAM AHMED and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for an attack Friday on a popular Kabul cafe that killed 21 people, mostly Western civilians, saying it was in retaliation for a coalition airstrike earlier in the week in which a number of Afghan civilians had died in a village north of Kabul.
In their statement, the Taliban said they picked a restaurant frequented by “high-ranking foreigners” where alcohol was served. The attack, one of the most significant on Western civilians since the start of the war in 2001, occurred in the heart of one of Kabul’s most secure districts, very close to many embassies and coalition military bases.
Western officials said they were trying to confirm the Taliban’s stated motive for the coordinated attack, which occurred just two days after the airstrike and would have required extensive planning. A suicide bomber had cleared a path for two gunmen who stormed in and fired on diners, the police said.
Westerners who died in Friday’s attack came from America, Canada, Russia, Lebanon and other countries, and included the head of the International Monetary Fund in Afghanistan and the head of political affairs at the United Nations here, both highly regarded officials who had spent years in the country. Two Americans working at the American University in Afghanistan were also killed in the attack, the university said in a statement Saturday.
“The attack was in retaliation to the massacre carried out by foreign invaders 2 days earlier in Parwan province’s Siyah Gerd district, where the enemy airstrikes destroyed up to 10 homes, razed several orchards as well as killing and wounding up to 30 innocent civilians, mostly defenseless women and children,” according to the Taliban statement.
After waves of condolences and condemnations over both attacks — from the international coalition, the United Nations, diplomats and ordinary Afghans — the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with the Americans has been strained in recent months over the signing of a long-term security contract, released a statement of his own.
Mr. Karzai expressed sympathy for the victims of the cafe attack but also seemed to equate it with the airstrike, which had been called in by Afghan and American forces who were under fire.
“The war on terror will bear fruit when victims and terrorists are distinguished from each other and the elements of terror are fought against,” said Mr. Karzai, who appointed a committee to investigate the civilian casualties from the strike. “If NATO, led by the United States, wants to be Afghan people’s ally, they should target terrorism.”
The head of the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the Afghan police, suspended the commander and intelligence officer in charge of the district where the restaurant is and placed them under investigation.
Kabul appeared to return to normal Saturday, with a slightly heavier police presence visible along its traffic-choked streets, especially near the roundabout where the cafe attack occurred. While bombings are not uncommon in Kabul, the extent of the damage and the targeting of Western civilians raised alarms across the country.
Some international organizations tightened security, clamping down on the modest freedom of movement enjoyed by foreigners working in Kabul. United Nations officials, meeting privately, vowed not to adopt a “bunker mentality” in response to the attacks, which claimed the lives of four if its personnel, including two from the United Nations Children’s Fund.
It is thought that the only people who escaped the cafe attack were local employees of the restaurant, some of whom jumped through a second-floor window.
The chief political affairs officer for the United Nations in Afghanistan, Vadim Nazarov, a longtime official with the agency, was killed in the attack, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not yet been made public. Mr. Nazarov, a Russian, was highly regarded for his years spent in Afghanistan and his understanding of the Afghan political context.
The International Monetary Fund said its representative in Afghanistan, Wabel Abdallah, was also among those killed. Mr. Abdallah, 60, had served in Afghanistan since 2008 and had managed to forge a good working relationship with Afghan officials despite a series of scandals that left many Western officials at odds with their Afghan counterparts.
The Taliban also claimed to have killed a high-ranking German official, but the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, reached Saturday, said it was still working to confirm that.
Senior officials at the American University in Afghanistan convened for a briefing Saturday morning to review security procedures, but decided to proceed with an upcoming student orientation and academic activities.
“That’s how our colleagues would have wanted it,” said Dr. Timothy Saffary, the school’s chief academic officer.
One American killed in the attack had recently joined the political science faculty at the university, while the other worked in student affairs, according to the university’s statement.
The attack on the lightly guarded restaurant was a departure for the Taliban, which have historically targeted heavily fortified government compounds and high-profile symbols of the Western presence in Afghanistan, like the American Embassy and a building believed to house the Central Intelligence Agency station in Kabul.
Those attacks, while generating heavy news media attention, have often been far less successful in generating heavy casualties. Typically, Afghan civilians who happen to be in the vicinity are the victims. A Taliban bombing this month at the entrance to Camp Eggers, a large base for the American-led military coalition in the center of Kabul, did not inflict any casualties, for instance. The base is less than a mile from the restaurant, Taverna du Liban.
The restaurant, which serves Lebanese food and has a clientele made up largely of expatriates, had almost none of the security enjoyed by official installations, like concrete blast walls or checkpoints blocking off the street it is on. It is also one of the few establishments in the city on the approved list by a number of international agencies.
The initial blast appeared to have been powerful. It was heard miles away and shook windows in the neighborhood, which is home to numerous embassies and shops that serve Western aid workers, journalists and other foreign civilians who live in Kabul.