Ten hours after it started Wednesday night, the attack in Kabul on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) was over and one professor, seven students, two security guards, and three members of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces were dead.
One of the seven students was Sami Sarwari, who had posted on his Facebook page only days before that he started school in AUAF. One friend had responded, “So excited for you! Can’t wait to hear how the first week goes.”
Sarwari’s last post on Facebook was August 23, at 9:45 a.m. It read, “I’m in. Looking forward to a beautiful and bright future.” His location showed him checked into AUAF.
Ahmed Mukhtar was standing in the courtyard of the university talking to his friends about the classes he was taking when the first shots rang out, followed by a loud explosion.
A local journalist used to covering such events, Mukhtar instantly recognized it for what it was - a complex assault involving multiple attackers carrying a variety of weapons. The attackers, he could tell, had entered the compound and would try to kill as many students as possible. He knew he had to flee.
“The explosion happened in the south side of the university so my friends and I started running to the east side of the university where there was a security tower,” he recalled. The university had several towers with armed guards for just such an attack.
Mukhtar was among dozens of other students who climbed the narrow steps of the tower to jump over the walls and escape.
What helped him and others, Mukhtar said, were the safety drills the university had held to prepare students for an emergency like this.
‘I am heartbroken’
Although Mukhtar had not taken his class, he remembered the good-natured young professor who lost his life that night as a friend.
Naqib Khpulwak seemed to be popular among his peers and students alike, given by the number of posts about his death on social media. As a Fulbrighter, a graduate of Stanford law school, and a PhD candidate at Oxford University, Khpulwak’s friends said he had offers to work and live abroad but he chose to stay in Afghanistan.
“I am heartbroken; I am lost; I can't express my sorrow. I have lost my dear buddy in the terrorist attack in American University,” journalist Habib Khan wrote about him on his Facebook page.
A few minutes later, there was another post by Khan.
“And I have lost another great friend and fellow classmate, Jamshid Zafar. He was such a decent and intelligent human being. A hope for the country and a great intellectual.”
And then this.
“So far Naqib Khpulwak, Jamshid Zafar and Zubair Zakir are confirmed dead in the attack on AUAF. This sorrow is unbearable.”
Tracking those responsible
Meanwhile, a press release from the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced Thursday that initial investigations by the Afghan security agency National Directorate of Security or NDS have indicated that the attack “was organized and orchestrated from the other side of the Durand Line,” a reference to Pakistan.
It further stated that Ghani had called Pakistan’s army chief and asked for “serious and practical measures against the terrorists organizing the attack.”
A couple of hours later, ISPR, the public relations wing of Pakistan’s army, issued a press release announcing the actions taken by Pakistan in response to President Ghani’s call.
According to that release, Afghan authorities shared three cell phone numbers allegedly in use during the attack with Pakistan. The numbers, according to ISPR, were from a network owned and operated by an Afghan company whose signals spilled over to border areas of Pakistan.
“[B]ased on these three Afghan cell numbers provided by Afghan authorities, Pakistan Army carried out a combing operation in suspected area closer to Pak-Afghan border to verify presence of miscreants,” the press release said.
The outcome of that operation, according to ISPR, has been shared with Afghan authorities.
This was one of a series of deadly attacks in Kabul in recent months. One of those attacks last month, during a protest by Afghanistan’s Shi'ite Hazara community, killed 80. Islamic State claimed it.
Rebecca Zimmerman, an analyst with California-based RAND Corporation, tweeted that the attack showed Kabul's continued vulnerability to breach-and-enter attack operations. New defense tactics were needed that would have closed the university’s gates quickly, she added.