KABUL — On a warm summer evening, with peacocks strutting amid the patio chairs and moonlight reflecting off the lake, the Spugmay Restaurant is one of the most elegant sanctuaries in Kabul, a place where the war feels far away.
Seven young men changed that with sickening speed Thursday night. Armed with guns and grenades and explosives strapped over their baggy clothes, a minivan-load of Taliban fighters passed under the arched gateway in front of the restaurant’s ivy-draped facade, transforming the night into another scene of smoke, blood, and broken glass. Over the course of Thursday night and Friday morning, the insurgents executed diners and staff and fought a 12-hour gun battle with police.
By the end, at least 20 people lay dead, including restaurant patrons, cooks, guards, police, and all seven of the attackers, according to Kabul Police Chief Ayoub Salangi. But the insurgents proved once again that few places, even in the heavily policed capital, lie beyond their reach.
The choice of targets — a restaurant frequented primarily by Afghan families — was somewhat unusual for the Taliban, who have tended to marshal their limited resources to assault symbols of government or US military power, such as armored convoys, ministries, or Western embassies. But they have also attacked hotels, shopping centers, and supermarkets in recent years.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Spugmay. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the radical Islamist group, characterized the restaurant and nearby Spozhmai Hotel as a den of booze, prostitution, dancing ,and ‘‘wild parties’’ that catered to foreigners and was an affront to Islam. But Afghan police strongly disputed the description, saying the resort on Qargha Lake outside Kabul was frequented by Afghans relaxing with their families.
The top US commander in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen, said the attack bore the signature of the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied insurgent group based in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Haqqani group, which US officials believe has links to Pakistan’s intelligence service, has organized many of the most dramatic and deadly assaults in Kabul. Its ruthlessness and effectiveness has made it a top enemy of US troops in Afghanistan.
‘‘This is a crime against humanity because they targeted children, women, and civilians picnicking at the lake,’’ said General Mohammad Zahir, chief of the Kabul police investigation unit. ‘‘There wasn’t even a single soldier around there.’’
The attack, which follows closely on several Taliban assaults in other cities, suggested that insurgent groups are attempting to intensify their annual summer offensive.
The insurgents arrived at the Spugmay in a minivan at around 11:30 p.m. Thursday — the start of the Afghan weekend — while the restaurant was full of guests, some smoking hookahs under pine trees on the lawn, others eating lamb kebabs on the rooftop terrace. In the parking lot, the gunmen shot the manager’s brother and security guards standing outside, then stormed through the front door, past a sign that read ‘‘No guns allowed.’’