Just last month, I was at the same lakeside resort where Taliban gunmen carried out a suicidal attack on Friday, killing more than 20 people before they were gunned down.
My friends and I had gone to Lake Qargha to drink tea after a long hike on a hot day.
The man-made lake, about six miles outside Kabul, is the only large body of water near the capital, and it is extremely popular among Kabul residents seeking to escape the city’s pollution, particularly in the summer when temperatures can top 100 degrees.
The lake attracts a range of Afghans. The Spozhmai Hotel, which was the focal point of Friday’s attack, does draw upscale Afghans. But the lake is a popular destination for ordinary families, especially on Fridays, the main weekend day in a Muslim country. Foreigners, however, rarely stay there.
So why would the Taliban carry out a major attack a place that has draws a broad cross-section of Afghans?
The lake has no military significance. Neither NATO nor Afghan forces are in the immediate area. It is not a government installation, so it would not be considered a direct blow to President Hamid Karzai’s government.
In a statement, the Taliban claimed that the hotel was targeted because “Afghans drank alcohol there and that there was prostitution and dancing.”
Having visited the lake many times, I saw a few teenagers who smoked hashish and brought alcohol to the lake. I saw young men playing music and eating kebab and chatting loudly in cottages.
But the place appeals mostly to families because they feel comfortable. On Fridays, restaurants are usually filled with ordinary Afghans who bring their families to the lake to seek relief from the crowded and smoggy capital.
Americans Blame Taliban’s Haqqani Network
Afghan and American officials were quick to blame one particular wing of the Taliban — the Haqqani network.
Gen. John Allen, the US commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan said the siege “bears the signature of the Haqqani network.”
Over the past several years, the group has carried out many of the most spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, including deadly assaults on the US Embassy in Kabul and Afghan government buildings.
The attacks achieve nothing militarily. The Haqqani members are eventually killed, usually after they have inflicted considerable carnage. But these high-profile attacks are designed to achieve maximum publicity and undermine the public’s confidence that the NATO forces or the Afghan government can protect them.
The Haqqani network operates like a mafia-family business with extensive tribal links across the Afghan-Pakistan border. Their stronghold is mostly in wooded mountainous areas where many residents rely on the illegal lumber trade to earn an income.
Using tribal influence, intimidation and violence, the Haqqani network makes its money through extortion, kidnapping, illegal tax collection and demanding protection money.
The Haqqani network also has close historical links with al-Qaida leaders. As a young man, Osama bin Laden had his first battlefield experience fighting together with the Haqqani network against the Soviets in the 1980s.
Bin Laden helped build massive fortifications for the Haqqani leaders. Some of these fortifications are still used today for attacking NATO and Afghan forces.
Links To Pakistan
USofficials have long blamed Pakistan for providing at least tacit support of the Haqqani network. The Americans have repeatedly called on Pakistan to move against the group, saying Haqqani fighters have safe havens in Pakistan, which they use to launch cross-border attacks.
During a visit early this month to Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed his growing frustration with Pakistan.
“It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan,” Panetta said. “It is very important for Pakistan to take steps. It is an increasing concern, the issue of safe haven, and we are reaching the limits of our patience.”
Ahmad Shafi, who works in NPR’s Kabul bureau, is currently on assignment in Washington.