ISLAMABAD - Afghan and United Nations officials say the death toll in the overnight Taliban assault on a Kabul guesthouse has risen to at least 14, mostly foreigners. A spike in insurgent violence has increased insecurity in the capital and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Four Indian nationals, two Pakistanis, an American, a Briton and an Italian are among the foreigners confirmed dead in the hours-long assault, the most audacious the Taliban has carried out since launching its annual spring offensive last month.
The victims, including women, were attending a garden party Wednesday night at the Park Palace guesthouse in an upscale area of central Kabul.
It is not clear how many gunmen participated in the siege that ended early Thursday with security forces killing the assailants.
A presidential statement says three attackers were involved, while Kabul police confirmed just one.
A Taliban spokesman asserted that one man, wearing a suicide vest and armed with automatic weapons, carried out the attack.
The brazen attack against a highly secured facility in Kabul, and the Taliban’s recent battlefield gains elsewhere in Afghanistan, have raised questions about Afghan leaders’ claims about their national security forces’ capabilities.
It also strengthened a U.S. government oversight agency's skepticism that Afghan security forces are competent to deal with a “determined” Taliban insurgency.
John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), repeated those "serious concerns" in Washington Wednesday (at the Center for Strategic and International Studies).
“Optimistic assessments of progress often tell only part of the story and downplay longstanding problems such as high attrition rates, questionable capability reporting and unverified personnel accounts. Many of the problems the Afghans face today are the same problems they faced last year or even three years ago," said Sopko.
Sopko said the evidence suggests that Afghanistan lacks the capacity - financial, technical, managerial, or otherwise - to maintain, support, and execute much of what has been built or established during more than 13 years of international assistance.
The recent rise in violence has also dampened hopes of any peace talks taking place between the Taliban and Afghan government. The insurgents on Thursday again vowed to continue with hostilities until all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
Analysts such as Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at Washington’s New America Foundation, believe the Taliban may be trying to strengthen its position before engaging in any peace talks with Kabul.
“What we will have to see over the next two years is just how much progress the Taliban make [in the battle field]. So, essentially, I think we are probably in for a very prolonged situation of rather bloody semi-stalemate," said Lieven.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in a statement Thursday, condemned the guesthouse attack in Kabul and said Taliban statements on avoiding civilian casualties “ring hollow” in the wake of the latest killings.
In the first four months of this year, UNAMA has documented an “appalling” rise of 16 percent in civilian casualties over the same period in 2014. It says nearly 3,000 civilian casualties, including up to 1,000 fatalities have occurred this year.
Officials in neighboring Pakistan, where Taliban commanders have allegedly taken shelter, confirmed the killing of two of its nationals in the assault on the Park Palace Hotel, condemning it as a terrorist attack.