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Experts: Taliban have not changed strategy with Kabul restaurant attack

The weekend attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by foreigners came as no surprise to international organizations on the ground. Experts don't believe the Taliban have changed their strategy to target more civilians.

Dramatic scenes must have played out in the restaurant: Guests sought cover under tables as a group of terrorists shot wildly into the dining rooms. News agencies report the restaurant owner tried in vain to fend off the attackers. He was among the more than 20 people who perished, most of whom were employees at international organizations. The attackers were also among the dead.

During the evening dinner rush, at 7:00 p.m. Friday (17.01.2014), one of three Taliban members detonated his explosives-laden vest and blew a breach in the highly secured restaurant. Neither the man-high blast walls, nor the secured access points with armed guards could stop the attackers. The two remaining terrorists were killed later in a firefight with security forces at the scene.

No change in Taliban strategy

The suicide bombing on the popular Lebanese restaurant, Taverna Du Liban, in the high-end Kabul neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan was the worst attack so far in 2014. Afghanistan votes for a new president in April; and the international troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of the year. Although there are plans for a small contingent to remain in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai first has to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States. But he continues to play for time.

German military convoy in Afghanistan

International troops are scheduled to withdraw at the end of the year

In this context, the Taliban may be targeting civilians more in order to drive out not just the military coalition, but the entire international community. Yet "as horrible as this incident is, I don't see a change in strategy," said Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network. Similar attacks have also been launched before, "at least 12 to 15 times in the past eight years," Ruttig said. The worst attack was in 2012 at Qargha Lake, a popular weekend destination near Kabul. More than 20 people were killed, all of them Afghans.

Extensive security precautions

The Taliban, which normally doesn't miss an opportunity for fiery rhetoric, hasn't declared a change in strategy. A spokesman for the Islamist militant group said the attack was retaliation for a NATO airstrike in Parwan Province, a few kilometers north of Kabul. According to an assistant of the Afghan president, seven children and one woman died in the coalition strike.

"You have to carefully monitor the security situation," Nils Wörmer, head of the Konrad Adenauer Institute in Kabul, told DW. "But I think it's a bit early to talk about a change in [Taliban] strategy."

Wörmer's office lies just a few hundred meters from the site of Friday's attack. He could clearly hear the explosion, which shook the window panes in his office.

"It was immediately clear to me that something had happened," Wörmer recounted. But the Konrad Adenauer Institute was prepared.

Afghan demonstrators in Kabul demand that Karzai sign a securrity agreement with the US

Afghan demonstators call on Karzai to sign the security agreement with the US

"We had a relatively concrete warning in the last week related to our neighborhood, and we were very cautious," Wörmer said. He met with colleagues in his secured office. Like most of the international organizations, the Konrad Adenauer Institute is also integrated into the security networks.

"The security precautions are high," Wörmer said. "But that doesn't exclude the possibility that something similar could happen again." But the Afghan security forces have succeeded in preventing many attacks in the past few months, he said.

Kabul residents criticize Taliban

An informal, impromptu poll by DW's Kabul correspondent, Hussein Sirat, suggested the Taliban are not winning Afghan hearts and minds with such attacks.

"Wherever the Taliban have killed civilians, they have not achieved their goal," said Mirwais, a pedestrian in the Kabul city center.

Idris, another Kabul resident, seconded Mirwais' sentiment.

"The Taliban intimidate the people so that the security agreement won't be signed," he said. "But the people won't bend to this intimidation."

How the international organizations adapt to the tense security situation in Kabul will come after many conversations, analyses, and briefings in the following days. But Wörmer is not thinking about giving up.

"We have a clear agenda and long-term projects, which I considered to be very sensible," Wörmer said. "I am of the opinion, as I was before, that what I'm doing here with the Konrad Adenauer Institute is worth the risks."

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