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Jerome Starkey

The Times
Jerome Starkey in Kabul

An Afghan policeman picked up a bag of cashew nuts from next to a congealed pool of blood where six insurgents had fought a 20 hour battle with Afghan and Nato Special Forces - and threw a handful in his mouth to taste them.

“Pakistani,” he declared, with some contempt, before strolling off towards the corpses, and snacking on his spoils of war.

It was, for him, proof that the six men who brought Kabul to a standstill and rocketed the American embassy yesterday were from Afghanistan’s much maligned eastern neighbour.

In the wreckage of the 12-storey building - parts of which had been ripped open by heavy machine gunfire - the policeman’s colleagues found other, similarly convincing clues. One pointed to the cut of the attackers’ clothes - they all wore the traditional flowing robes ubiquitous on both sides of the border - and swore their tailoring was Pakistani.

Other men pointed to the hand grenades - lurking under at least two of the bodies, in what may have been a final booby trap - and insisted they were made by Pakistani armourers, despite the Russian writing.

Yet despite the speed, and the ease, with which Afghans like to blame their neighbours, senior western officials have reached the same conclusion, and diplomats in Kabul are furious about what some see as Pakistani militants’ increasingly brazen assaults on the west.

In a press conference yesterday afternoon, once the half-built highrise was finally cleared of insurgents, General John Allen, the commander of US and Nato forces, said he thought the Haqqani network was responsible.

“We believe by virtue of the complexity of the attack and the way it was executed, that this probably was a Haqqani instigated attack,” he said.

“And many of the attacks, the high-profile attacks that have been inflicted on Kabul in the last year or so, have been perpetrated by the Haqqani network.”

He was referring to assaults on the InterContinental Hotel in June, and the British Council last month. Both were blamed on the terrorist network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former American ally reported to have close relations with Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

In the same breath, Gen. Allen said Nato spoke to the Pakistani’s “all the time” about insurgents crossing he border. “In particular we seek to have the Pakistani government place greater pressure on the Haqqani network, to keep them on the east side of the border, to keep them in Pakistan so we can prevent these kind of attacks, high-profile attacks,” he said.

One military official - speaking on condition of anonymity - was more candid about the relationship between the terrorists and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). “If it’s Haqqani, by extension there’s an ISI hand,” he said.

ISI agents used to train and equip Haqqani fighters, so they could battle Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Many Afghans believe they never stopped, despite the Russian withdrawal 22 years ago.

A British official in close contact with UK diplomats said the embassy was “very angry with Pakistan after the British Council attack, which left 12 people dead and forced three empoyees to cower in a safe room for more than five hours, while the attack raged around them.

“It’s all done through proxies, but effectively it was Pakistan attacking Britain,” said one.

Moments after yesterday’s attack finished, President Hamid Karzai issued a statement marking his meeting with India’s foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai.

“We fully understand that a stable and secure Pakistan is in the interest of [Afghanistan] and of the entire region,” he said.

Officials insisted it was a coincidence that he met an Indian dignitary as an attack blamed on their nemesis Pakistan was drawing to a close, but the symbolism was unlikely to be lost on Islamabad.

The American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, was more concilliatory. “This is not easy for them,” he said. “It’s complicated, it’s difficult but clearly for a long term solution those safe havens have to be reduced.”

He went on to dismiss the longest gun battle Kabul has seen in a decade as just “minor league stuff”. “Half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away that isn’t Tet, that’s harassment,” he said. “If that’s the best they can do, you know, I think it’s actually a statement of [the insurgents’] weakness and more importantly since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security it’s a real credit to the Afghan National Security Forces. They are the ones that took down the building and took down those attackers.”

At least six Nato soldiers were wounded in the operation, a coalition spokesman said.