KABUL — The Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for an attack the day before on a popular Kabul cafe that killed 21 people, mostly Western civilians, saying it was in retaliation for a coalition airstrike Wednesday in which a number of Afghan civilians died in a village north of Kabul.
In a statement, the Taliban said they picked a restaurant frequented by “high-ranking foreigners” where alcohol was served.
The attack, one of the most significant on Western civilians since the start of the war in 2001, struck at the heart of one of Kabul’s most secure districts, close to many embassies and coalition military bases.
Western officials questioned the Taliban’s stated motive for the coordinated attack, which occurred just two days after the airstrike and would have required extensive planning. A suicide bomber cleared a path for two gunmen who stormed in and fired on diners, the police said.
The dead included the representative of the International Monetary Fund in Afghanistan, the UN senior political affairs officer here, and a British Labor Party candidate for the European Parliament who had been working in Afghanistan.
Two Americans working at American University in Afghanistan were also killed, the university said in a statement Saturday.
“The attack was in retaliation to the massacre carried out by foreign invaders two days earlier in Parwan province’s Siyah Gerd district, where the enemy airstrikes destroyed up to 10 homes, razed several orchards as well as killing and wounding up to 30 innocent civilians, mostly defenseless women and children,” the Taliban statement said.
The international coalition, the United Nations, diplomats, and Afghans quickly offered condolences and condemnations over both attacks.
Later, President Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with the Americans has been strained in recent months by negotiations over a long-term security contract, expressed sympathy for the victims of the cafe attack but also seemed to use the airstrike to criticize his NATO allies over the issue of civilian casualties.
“The war on terror will bear fruit when victims and terrorists are distinguished from each other and the elements of terror are fought against,” said Karzai, who appointed a committee to investigate the civilian casualties from the airstrike. “If NATO, led by the United States, wants to be the Afghan people’s ally, they should target terrorism.”
A US military official said the airstrike had been called in by Afghan and US forces who were under fire from Taliban fighters. “The operation was requested by the Afghans and approved by the Afghans,” the official said.
“More than 80 percent of Afghan civilian casualties are caused — in most cases intentionally — by Taliban, Haqqani, and other terrorist and insurgent groups,” the official added.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the Afghan police, suspended the commander and intelligence officer in charge of the district where the restaurant is and placed them under investigation.
Kabul appeared to return to normal Saturday, with a slightly heavier police presence visible along its traffic-choked streets, especially near where the cafe attack occurred.
While bombings are not uncommon in Kabul, the extent of the damage and the targeting of Western civilians raised alarms.
Some international organizations tightened security, clamping down on the modest freedom of movement foreigners working in Kabul have.
UN officials, meeting privately, vowed not to adopt a “bunker mentality” in response to the attacks, which claimed the lives of four of its personnel, including two from the UN Children’s Fund.
Apparently the only people who escaped the cafe attack were local employees of the restaurant, some of whom jumped off the roof and into a neighbor’s yard.
Senior officials at American University in Afghanistan reviewed security procedures Saturday, but decided to proceed with scheduled student orientation and academic activities.
“That’s how our colleagues would have wanted it,” said Timor Saffary, the school’s chief academic officer.
The attack on the lightly guarded restaurant was a departure for the Taliban, who have historically singled out heavily fortified government compounds and high-profile symbols of the Western presence in Afghanistan, like the US Embassy and a building believed to house the CIA station in Kabul.