A string of rocket attacks targeted Kabul’s international airport for hours Wednesday as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the NATO chief held talks with Afghan officials in the capital, authorities said.
Both the Taliban and the Islamic State issued competing claims of responsibility for the attacks, carried out while Mattis held meetings with President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders miles away at the heavily fortified presidential palace.
The attacks forced all flights to be canceled. The Interior Ministry said one Afghan civilian was killed and at least 11 others were injured after one of the rockets hit a house near the combined civil and military airport.
The Taliban have fired rockets occasionally in the past on the airport, and Wednesday’s attack coincided with the anniversary of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 1996. The Islamic State often asserts links to attacks without offering any clear evidence.
But the latest airport strikes were unprecedented in their scope, lasting more than six hours.
The U.S. military and NATO use the airport and it was not immediately clear if runways or aircraft were damaged.
The barrage included at least 12 rockets fired from at least two locations, according to police. One security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the attack, put the number of rockets fired on the airport and its vicinity at more than 30.
Speaking in a news conference with Mattis, Ghani described the attacks as “a sign of weakness, not strength” by insurgents.
“It is a classic example of what the Taliban are up to right now,” said Mattis.
Mattis with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg spoke with Ghani about plans to strengthen Afghanistan’s military as it faces a resurgent Taliban and factions backing the Islamic State.
Mattis’ visit is the first since President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, which includes a stepped up military campaign against the Taliban and efforts to end cross-border sanctuaries for militants in Pakistan.
Ghani said Trump’s plans have given Pakistan “a golden opportunity” to confront the Taliban and other militant factions.
“We know the cost of staying in Afghanistan, but the cost of leaving would be higher,” said Stoltenberg. “If NATO forces leave too soon, there is a risk Afghanistan may return to a state of chaos and once again become a safe haven for international terrorism.”
Defense secretary visits to Afghanistan are tightly managed and planned well in advance, but not disclosed until after arrival.
Ahmad Saeedi, a political analyst who previously served as an Afghan diplomat, said only few top people knew about the visit by Mattis and Stoltenberg – suggesting that the rocket attack was a serious security breach.
“It is a big question as to how Taliban or Daesh came to know about the trip?” said Saeedi, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State. “This creates a worry that the enemy has found a place even in our artery.”
Mattis travels abroad in a blue-and-white plane emblazoned with “United States of America” known as the E4B, but when visiting war zones he usually alternates to a lower-profile gray military jet.
In Afghanistan, there are several runways long enough for the defense secretary to land, including in Kabul itself and at Bagram Airfield north of the city. Defense secretaries have been known to land at Bagram and take helicopters down to the city, rather than landing in Kabul.
Militants have recently executed high-profile attacks seeking to cast doubt on the Afghan government’s ability to defend its most fortified city. A suicide bomber killed at least 24 people July 24, wounding dozens more.
A week later, a suicide bomber blew open the gates to the Iraqi Embassy in a coordinated attack, with gunmen infiltrating the compound. At least two embassy workers were killed.
Those incidents followed a June 3 attack in the northern part of the city, where a trio of suicide bombers detonated explosives at a funeral procession, leaving at least 15 dead and 80 injured.
On May 31, a truck bomb parked near the diplomatic quarter killed at least 80 people and wounded hundreds more in a blast so massive a resident mistook it for an earthquake.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Sayed Salahuddin