At least six international United Nations workers were killed in Afghanistan today when a team of gunmen and bombers raided their private guest house in Kabul. About an hour later, a rocket struck the luxury Serena Hotel located near the presidential palace. The attacks come one day after eight US soldiers were killed, making October the deadliest month for the US in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. The New York Times meanwhile reports the debate in the White House is no longer over whether to send more troops, but over how many more will be needed. We go to Kabul to speak with investigative journalist Pratap Chatterjee. He was staying at the Serena Hotel last night when the hotel came under attack. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show on Afghanistan, where at least six international United Nations workers were killed just before dawn today when a team of gunmen and bombers raided their private guest house in Kabul. About an hour later, a rocket struck the luxury Serena Hotel located near the presidential palace. The attacks come one day after eight US soldiers were killed in two separate bombings in southern Afghanistan, making October the deadliest month for the US in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.
The violence in Afghanistan is occurring as President Obama deliberates on whether to send as many as 40,000 more US troops to fight. According to a report published in today’s New York Times, the debate in the White House is no longer over whether to send more troops, but over how many more will be needed. The Times reports Obama is focusing on a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about ten top population centers. But advocates for a larger surge say such a plan would essentially give Taliban free rein across large parts of the nation. Obama has not announced when he will make his final decision.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way. I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt.
AMY GOODMAN: Later today, President Obama will sign a defense bill that contains a new provision that would allow US commanders to start paying Taliban fighters who renounce the insurgency. A similar program was used in Iraq with Sunni militants.
The debate over whether to escalate the war comes as Afghanistan is preparing to hold a runoff election November 7th between President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a former top official in the Northern Alliance.
Karzai is expected to soon face a new round of questions about his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. The New York Times reveals today Ahmed has been on the CIA’s payroll for much of the past eight years.
The agency reportedly [pays] Ahmed Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the CIA’s direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar. Ahmed is also suspected of being a major player in Afghanistan’s booming illegal opium trade.
We turn now to Afghanistan. We’ll go to Kabul to Pratap Chatterjee. Pratap Chatterjee is an independent reporter. He’s staying at the Serena Hotel that came under attack.
Pratap, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe what happened at the Serena Hotel?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Amy, thank you for having me.
At about 8:30 this morning, actually, just as I was going down to breakfast, we heard the sound of a large mortar, and we were hustled into the basement. About an hour later, we were able to come back up. And the mortar hit the central courtyard of the hotel, shattering two windows. Nobody was injured here, but I was able to go over to the other place that was attacked in Shar-e-Naw, where a UN guest house was sieged by three attackers, who were killed, but along with six foreigners and three security guards.
So everybody is sort of on lockdown now, the United Nations officials. A lot of the streets of the more — the neighborhoods where officials, UN officials, stay are deserted. This hotel was probably attacked because it’s where the Independent Election Commission stays, and Zalmay Khalilzad, for example, was staying here last week. So it’s a prime target. This is the second time this hotel has been hit. It was hit last year in January 2008.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you understand happened to the UN workers?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Amy, I have not been able to find that out. I know that the guest house was stormed. They often stay at a guest house around the corner, and they have generally two sets of double steel doors, so I imagine that the attackers, they came in at dawn at about, I think — the newspaper said 5:30 a.m., although there seems to be some discrepancy about that. But so, to get through, they would have had to kill the guards at each of the doors before they could get in. But they were obviously able to get in into the guest house and kill those people there before the rapid reaction force came about forty-five minutes later and killed the attackers. They were apparently wearing suicide vests, but they were not detonated, so nothing was blown up. It’s actually next to one of — a building that one of Karzai’s relatives owns, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been there, Pratap? And what is the atmosphere like right now in Kabul?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, Amy, I’ve been here for about three weeks now, working on a research project. And I would say that the mood has been, actually — until today, has been very relaxed. It’s sort of business as usual. People — there are a lot of guest houses here with UN officials, journalists. And there’s a sense of, you know, this has become the new Baghdad or the new Saigon.
However, this morning, when the attack happened, the streets, that are normally jammed, were completely clear. I was out in West Kabul today and back in central Kabul. And sometimes I get stuck right outside the Serena for an hour just moving about a hundred meters. And today you can drive anywhere, because it’s completely deserted. The place where I have lunch, you know, there were — we were the only people having lunch. It’s about a couple of hundred yards from where the guest house was attacked. So all UN officials have been told to stay in their houses, and nobody is allowed — the NGOs, most people have not gone to work today.
AMY GOODMAN: And is it your sense — who is doing these attacks?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, it’s my understanding that the Haqqanis are behind this. They actually caused — my colleague Anand Gopal at the Wall Street Journal, who’s actually sitting right next to me, he was called this morning and given a warning that they were going to attack a UN guest house in Shar-e-Naw. So the Haqqanis are actually probably one of the most — they’re sometimes considered the Taliban, but they’re really kind of a criminal gang.
And, to me, what’s interesting is that the Taliban has an agreement with the United Nations not to attack their guest houses. So, today, even though only a dozen people were killed, this represents a very serious change in what happens. I mean, part of the fault lies with, you know, the international community in demanding another election, like this is going to result probably in a number of attacks in the next few days just to disrupt things. What is unusual is the attack on the UN guest house. A couple more such attacks, and most of the international community will leave, and that could well be the end of the elections and a very different way of doing business. No more sort of parties in underground bars, and unfortunately, is sort of the scene in Kabul these days.
AMY GOODMAN: Pratap, I want to thank you for being with us. Pratap Chatterjee, investigative journalist, staying at the Serena Hotel last night when the hotel came under attack. Also, tell Anand Gopal hello. I hope you all are safe, as I hope everyone is in Afghanistan.