Shades of Mumbai, in a capital that supposedly was won years ago? The Serena Hotel has been considered one of the safest places in Kabul to stay while the Taliban battle NATO and native Afghan forces for control of the country. Yet the Taliban managed to get gunmen inside the hotel and execute nine of its guests before being killed by special forces. NBC has raw video from the scene:

Nine people were slain execution-style while they dined at Kabul’s most upscale hotel on Thursday, government officials and sources told NBC News.

The victims included four women and two children. Four foreigners were among those killed at the Serena Hotel.

A three-hour battle involving Afghan special forces ended with the gunmen dead, officials said.

Among the dead were a reporter for Agence France-Presse, along with his wife and two children:

Being a native didn’t mean much, according to witnesses:

The shooters, who are believed to have smuggled pistols into the heavily guarded hotel by hiding them in their socks, took a table at the restaurant. They ordered apple juice before launching the attack, a waiter in the Silk Route Restaurant said.

“Don’t kill us, we’re Afghan,” pleaded one man at a nearby table, according to a witness. The gunmen proceeded to kill the man and two of the children at his table, the witness said.

CBS noted that this comes as part of a crescendo of terrorism and violence in Afghanistan’s capital, putting lie to the notion that the war is winding down:

It also came on the heels of an uptick in bombings and shootings against foreigners in Kabul, something that had been relatively rare. Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot on the street execution-style and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.

The attacks show the Taliban are following through on their threat to use violence to disrupt next month’s elections. The presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the hotel attack, saying it shows that “our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it.”

The restaurant was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.

While natives did not get spared in the attack on the Serena, the point of the attack might have been to frighten off foreign observers of the election, the Christian Science Monitor writes.  At least some of them would have stayed at the Serena, assuming that it would have adequate security. And that strategy appears to be working:

It follows by just weeks a commando-style assault at a Kabul restaurant that killed 21 people, more than half of whom were foreigners. Both attacks, in establishments catering to expatriates, represent a “new trend,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Washington Post.

Many have expressed concern that the events will deter foreign observers from supporting next month’s election, which would mark the first democratic transition of power as the nation elects a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

The Wall Street Journal reports that at least one observer mission withdrew from the country Friday morning, while other groups said they would be assessing their plans.

Those elections will take place in just two weeks, which means that the observers would either have just arrived or will soon.

The issue here isn’t that the Taliban remain determined to disrupt the elections; everyone knew they intended to do so. Their success in conducting these attacks is what will have everyone reconsidering their positions on the election, and the war in general. The West, and especially the US, talk about “winding down” the war, but that’s only true from the perspective of Western involvement. The civil war in Afghanistan has not “wound down,” and will likely explode into the open when Afghanistan’s native security forces have to fight the Taliban entirely on their own. So far, even with NATO support in place, they’re having a very difficult time keeping the capital secured, let alone the rest of the country.

We may choose to end our involvement in Afghanistan for entirely legitimate reasons of national self-interest, but we shouldn’t indulge in national self-delusion about the consequences of that decision, either.