KABUL, Afghanistan — Nazeer Amiri, an ex-cop out for a leisurely late dinner with friends at the hilltop Inter-Continental Hotel, could hardly believe his eyes.
Insurgents had burst into the lushly landscaped complex, spraying bullets and setting off bombs. Amiri had already seen several bloodied diners crumple to the ground. Afghan police arrived, and he frantically shouted at them to shoot the assailants.
"They ran away and left us there!" he said, still incredulous after the nearly all-night siege ended early Wednesday, leaving at least 19 attackers and victims dead. "I saw some of the security forces flee with their weapons. I was begging them to give me their guns, so I could shoot back."
If the Taliban was seeking to exacerbate unease among the Afghan public and Western governments about the ability of the police and army to safeguard the country, it could hardly have picked a more symbolic target or a more sensitive time.
July marks the month in which the Afghan forces are to begin taking the lead role in policing seven parts of the country, including Kabul. That process is to culminate in Afghan security forces taking full control across the country by the end of 2014.
With an eye on that date and domestic support for the war rapidly fraying, President Barack Obama last week announced that 10,000 U.S. troops will be coming home by the end of the year, and another 23,000 by the end of next summer.
Among the guests at the hotel on a warm night were foreign and Afghan officials planning to attend a conference on the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
Instead, the hotel assault provided a reminder of Afghan forces' continuing reliance on the firepower of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Elite New Zealand troops helped quell the attack, New Zealand defense officials said, and helicopter-borne snipers killed three insurgents who had taken refuge on the hotel roof.
No one considered the Inter-Continental Hotel a particularly soft target for the insurgents, although it was certainly an inviting one.
An unlovely but enduring Kabul landmark, it has long been a prime gathering spot for Afghan politicians and the city's wealthier classes, a frequent venue for news conferences and internationally sponsored gatherings.
Exactly how the attackers managed to smuggle themselves and their weaponry onto the tightly guarded hilltop remained unclear. Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for Afghanistan's main intelligence service, the National Directorate for Security, suggested that construction on the site may have provided an opportunity for the attackers to slip in disguised as workers.
Witnesses, though, said at least some of the assailants wore what appeared to be police uniforms — a phenomenon that has now become commonplace in Taliban attacks. Some of the attackers wore white prayer caps.
After the attack, President Hamid Karzai vowed that the transition process would move ahead.
"This attack and all other similar attacks will not prevent the handover to Afghan forces," the president said in a statement. He also praised the response of the Afghan police and army to the hotel siege, without mentioning the role of NATO and other foreign troops.
Foreign military officials also tried to play down their own role and bolster that of the Afghans, issuing a statement praising them for responding "quickly and professionally." Both Afghan authorities and the NATO force painted the battle for the InterContinental as a victory.
All of the assailants died — eight or nine, by the varying accounts of Afghan officials. The country's main intelligence service said the insurgents intended to seize dozens of foreigners and Afghan VIPs as hostages, or to go room by room executing them.
But many in the city were rattled by the ease with which such a large and heavily armed group was able to penetrate a high-profile, well-guarded target — and by the fact that Western intervention seemed to have turned the tide.
From the Taliban point of view, the strike, while dramatic, did not cause the hoped-for level of carnage. The movement sometimes issues highly exaggerated statements that reflect what its commanders would consider a best-case scenario for an assault.
Often, they don't even wait until the fighting is over. In this case, the Taliban version included claiming a wildly overblown death toll.
Among the civilians who died were a Spaniard, according to the Interior Ministry, and an Afghan provincial judge. But the toll appeared to be the heaviest among the hotel staff, including cooks and cleaners. Two Afghan police officers were also killed, the Interior Ministry said.
Hours afterward, the complex remained closed to outsiders, although guests were eventually allowed back to collect belongings. That still proved dangerous. A suicide bomber who had hidden in a room detonated his explosives at about 7 a.m. — some five hours after Afghan authorities had declared the siege was over and the building secured.
Amiri, the former police officer, finally was allowed to return and collect his car. "Now things are calm," he said, "But there is blood everywhere."