By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 16 -- At least two dozen people were killed in a pair of suicide attacks in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province on Monday, marking the deadliest day of suicide bombings here in the more than four years since the fall of the Taliban.
The larger of the attacks took place in Spin Boldak, a town on the Pakistani border, when a bomber drove his motorbike into a crowd of hundreds who had gathered at a festival to watch a wrestling match, according to the provincial governor, Asadullah Khalid. That attack killed at least 20 people and injured several dozen more.
Earlier in the afternoon, a suicide bomber in the city of Kandahar, near the main mosque downtown, attacked an Afghan army vehicle, killing four soldiers and a civilian. Fourteen other people were wounded, according to a local hospital official.
Mohibur Rahman, a soldier who was in the vehicle directly behind the one that was hit, said he saw someone who looked to be in his teens dart in front of the convoy. "He lay down under the first vehicle and blew himself up," Rahman told Radio Azadi, a local station in Kandahar.
There has been a spate of violence in Afghanistan's south, marked by a number of suicide attacks. On Sunday, a suicide bomber in Kandahar killed a senior Canadian diplomat and two other civilians. Earlier this month, a bomber killed 10 in Uruzgan province, just a few hundred yards from where the U.S. ambassador had been holding a meeting, though the ambassador was not considered to be the attack's target.
The U.S. military is scheduled to hand over control of security in the volatile south to NATO-led forces later this year, and security officials here suspect that terrorists are attempting to scare NATO nations into backing out of their commitments. The Netherlands has been wavering over whether it will send additional troops to the south, and officials expect its parliament to vote soon on the issue.
Also planned in the coming weeks is a conference in London at which the Bush administration, members of the European Community and the United Nations will discuss their participation in Afghanistan's reconstruction.
The south "has been a focal point, and there are a variety of reasons," said Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak. "It has to do with the London conference. And it has to do with the NATO takeover."
Kandahar was once the religious stronghold of the extremist Taliban militia, which was driven from power by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, and the region has continued to harbor pockets of Taliban supporters. Some of the Islamic militia's senior figures reportedly took refuge across the Pakistani border, and Afghan officials suspect many recent attacks have been launched from there.
The strikes on Monday came just hours after President Hamid Karzai told reporters gathered for a breakfast at the presidential palace that the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan was not over, despite some progress.
"Afghanistan's success does not mean that it is now fully on its own feet. It will take many, many more years before we can defend ourselves with our own means," Karzai said.
Insurgents in Afghanistan have shifted tactics in recent months, from fighting international forces on rural battlefields to suicide attacks in urban areas. Despite a quarter-century of war, such attacks in Afghanistan have historically been relatively rare because of a cultural aversion to suicide. Since September, however, there have been at least 25 suicide bombings.
Both Afghan and foreign officials insist the new strategy is a sign of desperation by insurgents who suffered devastating battlefield defeats last spring and summer. But those same officials are also concerned that terrorists here may be mimicking tactics in Iraq that have succeeded in terrorizing much of the population.
Karzai said that most of the suicide bombers attacking in Afghanistan have been foreigners, but that some Afghans have also been involved. Intelligence information, he said, indicates that terrorist leaders are recruiting drug addicts to carry out attacks and that some may not even realize they are being sent on suicide missions.
The latest attacks follow a U.S. missile strike aimed at al Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman Zawahiri, just across the border in Pakistan. Pakistani officials said Zawahiri was not hit in Friday's strike, but that at least 13 villagers -- including women and children -- were killed. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis in cities across the country took to the streets in protest over the weekend; there were no major rallies on Monday.
Pakistani officials have said they believe that the Predator drone aircraft used in the missile attack was launched from within Afghanistan. But Karzai said Monday he did not know whether that was the case. "Afghan territory can be used for antiterrorist activities, as it is being used right now. But on that attack we have no information at all," Karzai said. "We heard it from the press, as everybody else has heard it."
U.S. senators from both parties on Sunday defended the attack as necessary in the struggle against al Qaeda, which had been sheltered in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule. On her visit to Liberia for the inauguration of that nation's new president, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to speak specifically about the strike but said the United States makes no apologies for its efforts to track and kill terrorist leaders. "These are not people who can be dealt with lightly," she said.
Researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.