Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — As their target, they selected the hub of Afghan governance, a part of downtown Kabul that includes the presidential palace, the Justice Ministry, the central bank and other heavily guarded buildings.
Then, on Monday morning, as the heart of the capital bustled with shoppers and Afghans on their way to work, seven Taliban militants with AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, rocket launchers and suicide vests hidden under their shawls unleashed their attack. The militants left five people dead and laid bare Kabul's vulnerability even as the U.S. ratchets up the war to rout the militancy.
The daring raid illustrated the Taliban's skill at carrying out reconnaissance that can set the stage for such an attack, and exposed glaring weaknesses in the U.S.-backed Afghan government's ability to adequately secure the heart of the country.
Somehow, the insurgents were able to get explosives, firearms and a massive amount of ammunition past the gantlet of checkpoints that ring downtown Kabul. For five hours, they plunged the city's center into a state of war.
Afghans darted for cover while bursts of gunfire rang out overhead and explosions shook the downtown. Thick, black smoke billowed into the sky as NATO helicopters hovered above.
"We used to think this kind of attack was no longer possible in Kabul," said Nasir Ahmed, an Afghan police official, shouting above the din of machine-gun fire and rocket explosions. "Now it's clear we've got to do a lot more to make this city safer."
Those slain were two civilians -- one of them a child -- two Afghan police officers and one intelligence officer, said Defense Minister Abdul Raheem Wardak. At least 35 civilians, 20 police officers, 10 soldiers and six intelligence officers were injured. The seven insurgents were killed.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters the attack occurred during a ceremony for some of his Cabinet nominees at the nearby presidential palace. No one there was hurt.
"As we were conducting the ceremony to swear in the Cabinet, a terrorist attack was going on in an area of Kabul close to the presidential palace," Karzai told reporters. "This is just one of the dangers."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the militants' aim was to target the presidential palace, the central bank and other government buildings in the area. The move resembled a carefully coordinated attack last February by Taliban militants on the Justice Ministry building and two other downtown government buildings that killed 20 people.
Monday's attack began shortly before 10 a.m., when the team of insurgents sent one of its members, armed with an explosives vest, to the front gate of the central bank, said Amrullah Saleh, chief of Afghanistan's intelligence agency. When an intelligence officer stopped the militant at the gate, he detonated the explosives, killing himself and the officer, Saleh said.
The remaining insurgents ran into the nearby Feroshga e Afghan Shopping Center, a four-story building less than 70 yards from the presidential palace. As they darted into the shopping mall, the insurgents threw grenades inside as stunned Afghans tried to flee, police said.
From the windows and rooftop of the mall, the militants engaged in a fierce, prolonged gunfight with Afghan police and commandos who had surrounded the area. Nearby at the luxury Serena Hotel frequented by Westerners and journalists, guests were hurried down into the basement as police and commandos at the hotel opened fire at the militants.
The attack paralyzed the city. Police cordoned off the downtown area and established roadblocks that brought traffic elsewhere to a standstill. Shopkeepers shuttered their storefronts in neighborhoods ringing the area. Afghans stranded in office buildings or stores desperately waited for the right moment to run for safety.
One middle-aged woman in a scarf and overcoat, however, frantically hurried past police and toward the violence.
"My children are stuck in the Income Tax Ministry building. I've got to go and get them," she said before police pulled her aside.
The militants kept up the battle even as flames engulfed the mall. At one point, one militant armed with explosives drove an ambulance up to the cluster of buildings, Saleh said.
"The intelligence officer asked, 'Where are you going?' " Saleh said. "The guy was silent, and the officer noticed that near his right leg he was hiding something. When [the officer] saw it was a detonator, he yelled, 'This is a suicide attacker!' "
The intelligence officer ran for cover as the militant set off his explosives, blowing out the windows of the Gul Bahar Shopping Center down the street from the Feroshga e Afghan mall. Neither the intelligence officer nor anyone else was hurt in that blast.
"Today's attack was in no way a success for the enemy," Saleh said. "They cannot claim credit for entering a shopping mall and just blindly shooting at civilians."
The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who was in Kabul over the weekend, condemned the attack.
The Taliban militants are "desperate people, they are ruthless," Holbrooke told reporters in New Delhi, the Indian capital.
"The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack, nor will they succeed. But we can expect these sorts of things on a regular basis."
Special correspondents M. Karim Faiez and Shah Barakzai contributed to this report.