By Matthew Rosenberg | NYT | Mar. 27, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan Defense Ministry went into a near-total lockdown on Tuesday after the discovery of 10 suicide vests and the arrest of more than a dozen Afghan soldiers suspected of plotting to attack the ministry and blow up commuter buses for government employees, Afghan and Western officials said.
The security breach took place in one of the most fortified parts of Kabul, less than a mile from the presidential palace and the headquarters of the American-led coalition. It raised the prospect that the Taliban, which committed a series of high-profile attacks inside Kabul last year, planned to pick up where it left off as winter snows gave way to spring, clearing the high mountain passes and opening the annual fighting season.
Compounding the fears of renewed violence in Kabul was the apparent complicity of Afghan soldiers in the plot. Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killing their colleagues among the international military force here at an alarming rate in recent months — only hidden bombs, the so-called improvised explosive devices, have killed more coalition service members this year.
The latest killings by Afghan security forces came on Monday when three coalition service members were killed in two separate attacks.
Now, it seems, the Afghan security forces may represent a growing threat to their own government.
Details of the latest plot, which officials said was uncovered on Monday, remained sketchy. The Defense Ministry denied any attempted bombings had taken place and said no soldiers had been arrested. The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, did not offer any immediate comment.
But a Western official said at least 10 suicide vests were discovered in and around the ministry late on Monday afternoon. Most were found in guard sheds around a parking lot, and the belief among Afghan and Western officials is that the plan was to blow up buses carrying ministry employees home, the official said, asking not to be identified so as not to be seen contradicting official statements from the Afghan government.
An Afghan Army officer who handles administrative matters at the ministry also said there were 10 bombers, and that they are believed to have been plotting to blow up buses.
“You have to be cautious when you come here. It is not safe here,” said the officer, who similarly did not want to be identified. The plotters “have links inside the ministry. Otherwise, they could not enter such a highly secured place.”
Along with the usual contingent of Afghan Army guards, special army commandos could also be seen protecting the Defense Ministry on Tuesday afternoon.
A sergeant who was guarding the ministry said he and his men had been briefed on the plot, and that they were told the bombers may also have been planning to enter the ministry and possibly the headquarters of the intelligence agency.
The sergeant, who also asked not to be identified, said that two bombers might still be at large, thus the lockdown at the ministry, where only senior officers and people they escorted were being allowed in or out on Tuesday afternoon. He said that uniformed soldiers ordinarily walk into the ministry without being searched, an indication of a security weakness the plotters sought to exploit.
The Western official said a number of people, including Afghan soldiers, were arrested in connection with the plot on Monday and Tuesday but could not provide an exact figure. Multiple Afghan television stations reported 10 arrests on Tuesday and six on Monday, although it was not clear whether the suspects were soldiers or civilians.
The security alert extended beyond the ministry. A fortified street that features the Canadian Embassy and the back entrance to the British Embassy along with compounds housing other international institutions was locked down for a brief time around noon.
No cars or people were allowed in or out of the checkpoints that control access to the street for about an hour, and Afghan security forces were a heavier-than-usual presence around a major traffic circle at one end of the street.
A Western-style supermarket located on that same traffic circle was hit by a suicide bomber in January 2011, the first of what would be a series of attacks to his Kabul last year.
The most spectacular insurgent attack inside Kabul last year came in September, when at least six militants armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades took up positions inside an unfinished high-rise and began firing on the area around coalition headquarters and the American Embassy. Another three suicide bombers hit targets elsewhere in Kabul.
It took Afghan security forces, aided by the coalition, almost 20 hours to clear the militants from the high-rise.
The Taliban have usually claimed responsibility for significant attacks on the capital. But Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents, said he was unaware of any attempt to attack the Defense Ministry, raising the possibility that the bombing plot may have been the work of disaffected soldiers.