The Taliban sought to seize ownership of Afghanistan's Independence Day today by launching a high-profile attack on a British cultural institution in Kabul.
Afghan police say the attack, which targeted the British Council, killed at least nine people, including one foreign soldier. The nationality of the soldier is not yet known.
Britain's ambassador in Kabul, William Patey, told reporters that all insurgents involved in the attack had been killed.
He also said that all British nationals affected by the attack were safe.
"I'm pleased to say that the British Council staff who were in the compound -- who essentially were in the 'safe room' for most of the day and we were in contact with them -- have been extracted safely," he said. "They are now in the embassy, obviously shaken but well, uninjured."
Two British nationals and one South African were inside the compound during the attack but were later rescued by an elite Afghan unit, Patey said.
Police said five Taliban attackers laid seige to the cultural center in an hours-long assault that began when a suicide bomber in a car blew himself up in front of the gate. Another car packed with explosives detonated moments later and four attackers, three of them men dressed in the burqas worn by Afghan women, stormed the compound.
"It was around 5:30 a.m. and a huge bang woke me up," one witness said. "I walked outside the house and I saw smashed windows of the house in the area. I saw the second bomber blow himself up outside the [British Council]."
The attack appeared designed to profile the Taliban as a liberation force by striking at the British Council as a symbol of foreign occupation on the same day Afghan's celebrate their annual Independence Day.
The country's annual celebration marks the day 92 years ago when Afghanistan signed a peace deal with Britain that ended long-standing British control over Kabul's foreign policy. The peace deal, which ended the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, marked the emergence of Afghanistan as a fully independent player on the modern world stage.
Security forces carry a wounded British man at the site of a suicide attack outside the British Council in Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told news agencies, "The attack is a message from the Taliban to the British invaders on the occasion of the independence day when they lost to brave Afghans 92 years ago."
The attack was also a message to Kabul and its foreign allies that the militia can penetrate the capital's rings of security even when they are at their tightest for national holidays.
“[The Taliban] want to show they have power and they demonstrated their power," Wadir Safi, a professor and policy expert at Kabul University, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "They want to show and prove that the government is not capable of celebrating Independence Day and that it is the Taliban which is the independence movement. The Taliban think that this government is not independent [of foreign powers].”
The attack comes despite the government's tightening of security measures in the capital over the past three days to prevent just such an assault.
Afghan observers say that both sides – the government and the Taliban – consider the stakes for attacks to be the highest on national days because such days provide the highest-profile test of the two sides' relative strength.
“To present themselves and their power, the Taliban take action on such days [as national holidays]," Afghan military expert Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former general, told Radio Free Afghanistan. "To celebrate such important days, the government is forced to tighten security even 15 days ahead of the event. The goal [of the Taliban] is that the people of the world will lose trust in the Afghan forces and say these forces are not capable of working efficiently and providing security."
The fact the militia is able to reach into the capital to strike an intended target is guaranteed to raise security fears among the city's residents.
But the increased fear has to be weighed against the anger that continued attacks generate at a time when most citizens only want to have peace.
Afghan Independence Day, celebrated every year on August 19, commemorates the Treaty of Rawalpindi, which was signed in 1919. The treaty ended the third of three wars between Afghanistan and Britain and marked the end of decades of British efforts to control Afghanistan's foreign policy as part of the Great Game, or rivalry, between Russia and Britain in the region.
The war, which was fought from May to August in 1919, began with Afghan forces marching into the northwest tribal areas of British India (today the tribal areas of Pakistan) but ended with British forces pushing those forces back and entering Afghanistan themselves.
Both the Afghans and the British considered themselves the victors of the war. For the Afghans, the 1919 treaty ended Kabul's ceding control of its foreign policy to London in exchange for subsidies. For the British, it reaffirmed the Durand Line as the political boundary separating Afghanistan from the North-West Frontier.
written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and agencies