KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban claimed Saturday that its devastating, commando-style assault on a popular restaurant was payback for a NATO airstrike that killed Afghan civilians, as officials raised the death toll in the Friday night attack to 21 people, including 13 foreigners.
With Kabul’s close-knit expatriate community reeling from the deadliest attack on Western civilians in the 12-year Afghanistan conflict, the Taliban, the U.S.-led NATO coalition and Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed a war of words over civilian deaths that underscored the tension between Washington and Kabul as they haggle over a U.S. military presence in the country after 2014.
Two Americans who worked for the privately run American University of Afghanistan were among the dead. The university’s president identified them as Alexis Kamerman, a member of the student affairs staff, and Alexandros Petersen, a Eurasia scholar who had just joined the political science faculty at the 8-year-old nonprofit institution.
Also killed at the Taverna du Liban restaurant were its Lebanese owner, the Lebanese country director for the International Monetary Fund, a Russian United Nations official, two Canadians and two Britons, including a development consultant who was running for a seat in the European Parliament.
“There is no possible justification for this attack, which has killed innocent civilians, including Americans, working every day to help the Afghan people achieve a better future with higher education and economic assistance at the American University, United Nations, International Monetary Fund and other organizations,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
The Taliban said that the attack was retaliation for a NATO airstrike last week in Parwan province, north of Kabul, that the group said killed many civilians. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that two civilians were killed and expressed regret, but that local officials had been given notice before the attack, which targeted insurgents operating “in a high threat area with Taliban activity.”
Karzai, who has long railed against civilian casualties caused by NATO, waited nearly 24 hours before issuing a statement Saturday afternoon condemning the restaurant raid. But he also made an obvious reference to the incident in Parwan, saying foreign troops must “know the difference between victims and terrorists.”
“If the U.S.-led NATO forces want to remain committed to the people of Afghanistan, they must target the terrorists,” Karzai said.
Obama administration officials have been waiting for the Afghan leader to approve a bilateral security pact that would provide for some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year, when NATO combat forces are due to withdraw.
The recent sharp deterioration of security in Iraq — where a deal was not reached to leave some U.S. troops behind after the war — has added urgency to the negotiations since Pentagon officials believe that Afghan forces may not be able to battle the Taliban effectively on their own. But Karzai has delayed signing the deal, even after it was endorsed by a council of Afghan elders he had hand-picked.
Although the White House praised “the quick and skillful response of the Afghan security services” to the Taverna attack, many in Kabul were shocked that the Taliban could carry out such a deadly assault in the heart of the capital’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, home to the U.S., British and other Western embassies.
The restaurant had a small team of security guards and was one of the few establishments in Kabul that some foreign diplomatic missions allowed their personnel to visit. Once past the metal gate and the security check, a mostly expatriate clientele sat on low couches and dined on Lebanese staples, including kebabs and tabbouleh salad, and sometimes were served alcohol out of unmarked pitchers.
The attack began when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at the restaurant entrance about 7:30 p.m. Two other militants then stormed the dining room and opened fire on customers, some of whom reportedly tried to duck under their tables as the bullets flew. The Interior Ministry said that the shooters were gunned down by security forces who arrived at the scene.
Restaurant owner Kamal Hamade was killed, along with several employees. Witness accounts suggested that none of the diners survived.
The president of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, confirmed that the group’s representative in Afghanistan, Wabel Abdallah, had been killed.
Afghanistan’s Finance Ministry issued a statement describing Abdallah, 60, as “a great friend of Afghanistan, and personal friend of many of us, who worked tirelessly with the [ministry] in supporting the relevant government agencies on economic reforms since 2008.”
“We are all deeply saddened by the events Friday evening,” the American University’s president, C. Michael Smith, wrote in an email to students. “It was a vicious attack on innocent people.”
The Interior Ministry said it had suspended the police commander responsible for the neighborhood, as well as an unspecified number of police officers, and were investigating them.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, a Taliban rocket struck a field in Maiwand district of the southern province of Kandahar, killing three children and wounding four others as they played soccer, said a spokesman for the provincial governor, Jawed Faisal. The incident took place about 6 p.m. when the field usually is occupied by young children and teenage boys playing soccer.
Baktash is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.