By Paul Tait
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO aircraft killed an insurgent leader linked to a deadly hotel attack in the Afghan capital this week, the coalition said on Thursday, a raid that raised questions about whether Afghan forces are ready for the looming security transition.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Intercontinental, one of two major hotels used by foreigners and Afghan government officials, a rare night-time raid that began on Tuesday and ended five hours later with 12 killed.
However, the NATO-led Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network had also been involved in the assault by nine suicide bombers and gunmen.
ISAF identified the Haqqani network leader killed in an air strike as Ismail Jan, who it described as a deputy to the senior Haqqani commander in Afghanistan, Haji Mali Khan.
It said he and "several Haqqani fighters" were killed in the air strike in the Gardez district of Paktia province south of Kabul on Wednesday.
"The Haqqani network, in conjunction with Taliban operatives, was responsible for the Tuesday night attack on the Kabul Intercontinental hotel which killed 12 people, including a provincial judge," ISAF said in a statement.
The brazen raid came only a week after U.S. President Barack Obama announced a phased withdrawal of combat troops, with 10,000 to leave by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end September 2012.
Obama's announcement preceded the start of a gradual transition of responsibility to Afghan forces from next month that will end with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
With that transition process to begin in seven areas next month, the hotel raid raised serious questions about whether Afghan forces, particularly the police, were ready to take over.
"It shows one of the concerns is that the Afghan security forces are growing in quantity, not in quality," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
The attack ended when snipers on board a NATO helicopter killed the last three attackers fighting from the roof of the hotel. Earlier television footage showed Afghan forces firing wildly into the air.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that some police had refused to fight back.
ISAF has been training members of the 126,000-strong Afghan National Police since 2009.
Afghan police, who will be at the front line of the security transition in villages and towns across Afghanistan, have long been viewed as inept and lagging behind the training of the better-equipped army, which had been the focus of training efforts since the Taliban were toppled in late 2001.
Violence has risen to record levels across Afghanistan over the past 18 months as NATO troops, especially U.S. forces, hit back against a growing insurgency, especially in the Taliban heartland in the south.
A quarterly report by the United Nations secretary-general to the Security Council about Afghanistan found that the number of security incidents since March had risen 51 percent on the same period in 2010, with suicide attacks rising sharply.
Attacks in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar were especially worrying. "The city of Kandahar and its surroundings registered the majority of the incidents during the reporting period, with a quarter of the overall attacks and more than half of all assassinations recorded countrywide," the report said.
But Ruttig said the attack also highlighted other problems confronting Afghanistan before the transition process, which also includes handing the running of civil institutions and projects over to Afghans, begins.
Not the least of those is the political paralysis that has gripped the country for months.
"The fact that neither NATO nor the Afghans were able to prevent it says something -- that transition needs to be something more than just security," Ruttig said of the hotel attack.
"Security forces are only part of transition. There also needs to be a strengthening of political institutions and, at the moment, the parliamentary crisis has brought politics to a standstill," he told Reuters.
Last week, a special poll court set up by a decree by President Hamid Karzai overturned the results for a quarter of the seats in parliament from elections last year, effectively throwing out 62 MPs who had been declared winners.
The move, and the court itself, have been branded unconstitutional and illegal by Afghan and Western officials and observers. Critics have said the court was set up by Karzai to further his own political agenda and silence opposition.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Sugita Katyal)