Attack in Afghanistan Shows Shift in Taliban Tactics This week's bombing of the Serena Hotel signals a significant change in tactics by the Taliban. There is concern that the shift will increase pressure at home to withdraw coalition nations from Afghanistan — at a time when the U.S. is getting ready to send 3,200 Marines to prepare for increased Taliban activity in the spring.

Attack in Afghanistan Shows Shift in Taliban Tactics

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This week in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters attack the country's grandest hotel with bombs and guns. Several people were killed at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, including an American contractor and a Norwegian journalist.

As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kabul, the attacks suggest the Taliban is changing its strategy, and it has shattered the relative calm for westerners living in the city.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: You won't find many foreigners hanging out at Kabul restaurants these days. Many businesses catering to western customers closed following Taliban threats in the wake of the hotel attack. The few that stayed open are pretty much empty. That's because the regulars were evacuated by their employers to Dubai or are restricted to armed compounds here.

A few people thought this could happen and many don't buy NATO and Afghan officials' claims that Monday night's attack on the Serena is a sign of Taliban desperation after losing key battles in southern Afghanistan. Instead the prevailing feeling in Kabul is that if the Taliban can strike a fortified hotel so close to the presidential palace, in a city packed with western troops and afghan security forces, then no where in Afghanistan is safe anymore.

A recent U.S. decision to send 3,200 additional Marines to Afghanistan in the spring hasn't ease the trepidation, says Alex Strick Van Linschoten, a research fellow with the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies.

Mr. ALEX STRICK VAN LINSCHOTEN (Associate Research Fellow, Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies): I'm not so sure there's a lot that can be done to engage this threat and I'm not sure whether a lot of the things that one might suggest - increase security measures, barring Afghans from entering this and that hotel. I think this is largely going to be counterproductive in the end. This is Afghanistan, there's always going to be a certain amount of risk about things.

NELSON: For years, that risk had pretty much excluded Kabul. Suicide bombings in the capital have escalated in recent months, but the western targets were always soldiers, never tourists, aid workers or journalists. The Taliban prefer to kidnap those civilians for ransom and media attention. At least, until now, Taliban spokesman, Zabil Mushahed(ph) explained why in a phone call.

Mr. ZABIL MUSHAHED (Taliban Spokesman): (Through translator) The idea is to impose civilian losses on the foreigners which in turn will step up pressure on their governments to pull their soldiers out of Afghanistan.

NELSON: Afghan officials acknowledge the attack had the desired effect spreading fear that has paralyzed the foreign community.

Mr. SAYEED ANSARI (Spokesman, Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Here, Afghan intelligence agency spokesman, Sayeed Ansari, describes how the four Afghan terrorists - one wearing a police uniform, showed up at the front gate of the heavily guarded Serena Hotel, Monday night.

The terrorists were stopped before they could inflict the death toll they had hoped, that despite two of the bombers detonating their explosives and another going on a shooting rampage in the gym. That attacker - the lone survivor - was arrested inside the hotel. Within hours, three other Afghans who helped the terrorists were also arrested.

Ansari says their investigation shows the attack was hatched two months ago in a Pakistani-border town by militants with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. But Ansari says Afghan intelligence officials were unaware of any specific threat to the Serena, this despite a report that Afghan police officers in December tried but failed to arrest two suspected Taliban spies who were casing the hotel.

Mr. ANSARI: (Through translator) It's certainly a challenge. I hope that the Afghan security forces and western troops will be vigilant to prevent any future attacks.

NELSON: But Brigadier General Carlos Branco, spokesman for the NATO-led coalition here, says such Taliban attacks are hard to predict.

Brigadier General CARLOS BRANCO (Spokesman, International Security Assistance Force): The only kinetic(ph) activity they are able to carry out during winter is things like these where the civilians are the one targets, you know? And this is clearly an act of desperation because as an insurgent movement, they are facing serious problems.

NELSON: Former Taliban official and author Wahid Mujda disagrees.

Mr. WAHID MUJDA (Former Taliban Official; Author): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Mujda says the Talban is drawing its inspiration from the economic cost and political damage al-Qaida in Iraq has created for the United States, a scenario it would like to duplicate in Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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