The heroes in the suicide bombing of the Kabul City Center shopping mall on Monday were not among the police officers or NATO coalition and American Special Forces soldiers who showed up later.
They were Gul Agha and Lal Mohammed, two poorly paid security guards who have what lately has been one of the worst jobs in Afghanistan — screening visitors at the door.
When a suicide bomber stepped through the walk-through metal detector, alarms went off and the two guards opened fire, according to witnesses and the building’s security manager, Haji Gul.
What happened in the seconds that followed will probably never be known for sure, but witnesses reported an exchange of gunfire right before the bomber detonated the explosives in his vest. The only fatalities were the bomber and the guards, the police said, and two bystanders were wounded.
It was at least the fifth bombing in Kabul since Dec. 19, when a seven-month lull in attacks was broken. All of the bombings have been attributed to the Taliban or its Haqqani allies.
Because the explosives on Monday were detonated inside a vestibule built for security screening, no one was hurt in the dozens of shops full of clerks and a few shoppers or in the Safi Landmark Hotel, which occupies the other side of the building. The building was heavily damaged by a more successful attack a year ago that killed at least 16 people.
The shopping center was rebuilt after last year’s attack, the glass in its windowed facade replaced by bulletproof material that broke away in chunks rather than splintering into dangerous shards.
“The security guards do their jobs at the Safi Landmark. They do their jobs really well; they really fought,” said Abdul Raouf, who runs a children’s clothing store in the building. “The police will not sacrifice themselves for you, but the security guards gave their lives.”
The Afghan National Police arrived fairly quickly amid confusing reports that another bomber was still alive and armed inside or was expected to attack the crowd outside.
Attempting to keep onlookers back, the police tussled with squads of plainclothes officers from the National Directorate of Security. Some of the officers chambered rounds in their weapons, sending onlookers looking for cover.
“Our police are just ignorant,” one shopkeeper said in disgust.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force sent some Polish and Turkish officers and a couple Americans to the scene, but only as observers. Responsibility for Kabul’s security has been turned over to Afghan forces, although NATO keeps a garrison in the city.
American Special Forces soldiers with “X-21” patches were the last to arrive and scoured the debris. Bearded, heavily armed and in uniform, they refused to speak to reporters. Although it was midafternoon, they were wearing night-vision gear.
Earlier in the day, the American general in charge of the NATO training mission, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said at a news conference that the Afghan police had undergone “an incredible transformation” in the past 15 months.
As part of a $3 billion effort to train and equip the police, he said, 21,000 officers have undergone literacy training. That meant, he said, that 86 percent of the 117,000 police officers can now read at a first-grade level. “They can read and write their names, read numbers and even read some words,” General Caldwell said.