The American ambassador to Afghanistan has described a 20-hour assault on the heart of Kabul's diplomatic and military quarter as "not a very big deal", after security forces finally killed the last of a small team of insurgents that had paralysed the city.
About six Taliban fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons took over a half-completed building on Tuesday, from where they rained down fire on the nearby US embassy and Nato compounds. Meanwhile, suicide bombers targeted police buildings in other parts of the city.
Afghan security forces backed by Nato and Afghan attack helicopters were forced to fight floor by floor before the last insurgent was killed on Wednesday, putting an end to the longest sustained attack in the capital since the US-led invasion in 2001. At least nine Afghans, including four police officers were killed, and 23 people including civilians were wounded.
The city's streets were far quieter than normal: local staff of non-governmental agencies were told to come in late and many expatriate employees were locked down in their well-defended compounds. Afghans were again left questioning how such a complex attack could take place under the noses of international troops and their Afghan counterparts, who are due to take over security responsibilities in 2014.
The US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, said the attack needed to be put into perspective. "These were five guys that rumbled into town with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] under their car seats," he said.
"They got into a building and did some harassment fire on us and Isaf. This really is not a very big deal, a hard day for the embassy and my staff, who behaved with enormous courage and dedication, but half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 metres away – that isn't Tet, that's harassment," he said in reference to the Tet offensive in Vietnam.
"If that's the best they can do, I think it's actually a statement of their weakness and more importantly since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security it's a real credit to the Afghan national security forces."
Crocker said six or seven RPGs landed inside the compound. Isaf reported that six of its personnel were wounded.
The ambassador blamed the attack on the Haqqani network, a terrorist organisation based in Pakistan that has long been accused of receiving support from the Inter Services Intelligence agency. The group has also been blamed for this week's truck bomb outside an isolated US base that wounded 77 soldiers.
The Haqqani network has been responsible for Kabul's most spectacular and deadly attacks including last month's assault on the British Council, the bombing of the Indian Embassy and a Mumbai-style attack in the city's central business district.
"It's tough when you're trying to fight an insurgency that has a lot of support outside the national borders," Crocker said. "And the information available to us is that these attackers, like those who carried out the bombing in Wardak, are part of the Haqqani network, they enjoy safe haven in [the Pakistani region of] Northern Waziristan.
The Isaf commander general, John Allen, praised the Afghan security forces. "The insurgency has again failed," he said of the attack.
But for ordinary Afghans there was anger at the security forces' inability to prevent the attack. Hundreds of people gathered in Abdul Haq Square for a glimpse of the bullet-ridden bodies of the six attackers being brought out of the building after it was finally cleared.
"For Afghans, this is a strong attack and very sad for us," said Malek Tose. "Afghans are dying but for America it is nothing because they are fighting all over the world," he said.
Mohammad Bashir Suleiman Khil, a shopkeeper, said people were increasingly scared, even in Kabul, considered to be the most secure city in the country. "Every 10 days there are attacks in Kabul. Afghanistan will not be quiet again. There is no work, there is no business. People are not coming out of their homes today. We don't have any hope here."
The bodies of four insurgents lay on a concrete floor strewn with bullet casings. One had a bullet wound between his eyes. Crime scene investigators took the fingerprints of the dead and when they picked up a body to place it on a stretcher, a live grenade was found underneath him.
At least one of the attackers had held out nearly 20 hours inside the building before he was eventually overcome by police commandos using stun grenades. The attackers appeared to have used metal barrels to climb floors inside the building to avoid the external and exposed stairwells.