Kabul Bombing Could Set Back Talks With Taliban

Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, an Afghan legislator who is leading reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, addresses a news conference in the capital following a suicide car bombing in which he was burned.
Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, an Afghan legislator who is leading reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, addresses a news conference in the capital following a suicide car bombing in which he was burned. "I am working for the peace and prosperity of Afghanistan," he said, accusing Pakistan of engineering the attack. (By Rodrigo Abd -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 13, 2006

A rare suicide car bombing yesterday in Afghanistan's capital, which killed two civilians and left former president Sibghatullah Mujaddedi with burn injuries, could set back government reconciliation efforts with Taliban members and aggravate a growing war of words with neighboring Pakistan over terrorist violence.

Mujaddedi, 80, who heads both the upper house of parliament and a commission that works to return Taliban members to civic life, publicly accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of engineering the attack. At a news conference in Kabul hours after the blast, he gestured angrily with both heavily bandaged hands.

"What is my fault? My fault is that I am working for the peace and prosperity of Afghanistan," the turbaned, white-bearded politician said, according to the Associated Press. He alleged that Pakistani agents had "launched a plot" to kill him and that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, did not want Afghanistan to be "safe and secure."

A spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry in Islamabad immediately denied the allegations, calling them "baseless" and saying the government condemned all such attacks. But the incident -- the first suicide bombing in Kabul this year after an escalation in terrorism in southern and eastern Afghanistan -- threatened to deepen the rift between Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has long accused Pakistan of sheltering Islamic extremists and helping them launch cross-border attacks.

In some respects, the two leaders have much in common. Both espouse moderate Muslim values and seek to modernize deeply impoverished countries. Both have strongly condemned Islamic extremism and violence; both have been targets of assassination attempts. Their countries share a long border and tribes that live on both sides. They would seem natural allies in the war against terrorism.

Instead, a long history of mistrust and manipulation has continued to bedevil their relations, while the recent resurgence of violence by Taliban and Islamic militia forces in the turbulent tribal areas has led to renewed hostility between capitals.

"It's very sad. The two governments should be fighting terror jointly instead of trying to scapegoat each other," Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said by telephone from Islamabad on Friday. "The military can only attack targets; what is needed is a comprehensive approach that can bring development and rule of law" to the border areas.

Last month, Karzai presented Musharraf with the names and addresses of alleged Taliban members and other fugitives in Pakistan, but Musharraf angrily dismissed the information as "nonsense" and a "deliberate attempt to malign Pakistan." A Karzai spokesman, in turn, insisted that the information was accurate and showed that "terrorists have freedom of movement" inside Pakistan.

The resurgence of violence has occurred despite intensive military efforts on both sides of the border. In Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. troops are based and new army and police forces have been built, Taliban members and other insurgents have become increasingly entrenched and emboldened in some border regions. Almost daily, they burn schools and attack security targets.

In recent months, as NATO troops have begun replacing U.S. forces in the southern and eastern regions, the attacks have become increasingly ruthless and bizarre, from suicide bombings in crowded markets to the bludgeoning of a Canadian soldier March 4 by an ax-wielding teenager. Canadian officials have said they believe the young man was influenced by the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic militia that ruled most of Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The suicide attack on Mujaddedi's convoy yesterday, in which officials said both bombers and two bystanders were killed, might have been aimed at Mujaddedi's high-profile efforts to persuade Taliban figures to defect and return to public life. Several senior ex-Taliban members have run for office and others have joined the reintegration program, while fugitive Taliban groups have vowed to destroy Karzai's Western-backed government.

In other weekend violence, a roadside bomb in eastern Konar province killed four American service members in an armored vehicle yesterday, the U.S. military said, and alleged Taliban fighters kidnapped four Albanians working for a foreign company, along with four Afghan aides, in southern Kandahar province on Saturday.

In Pakistan, despite periodic offensives by thousands of troops into the semiautonomous tribal areas, Taliban fighters and other foreign Islamic radicals increasingly dominate pockets of the border region. In the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan-- from which U.S. and Afghan officials say many cross-border attacks are staged--these groups have even been able to establish parallel power systems, according to some observers.

"They have appointed local commanders" and civilian councils, said Afrasiab Khattak, a human rights and political activist. "They have lynched bandits from trees and dragged their bodies from vehicles. They have killed dozens of tribal leaders and threatened to kill anyone who collaborates with the government as a spy." Khattak spoke Friday from Peshawar, a Pakistani city just outside the tribal areas.

Pakistan's recent military crackdowns have shown how easily that approach can backfire. On March 1, army troops and helicopters assaulted what the government said was an extremist hideout near the border town of Miran Shah. Local tribesmen, angry over reports of civilian casualties and provoked by Muslim clerics, mounted a sustained armed defense. Since then, at least 100 people have been killed, thousands have fled the area and sporadic fighting has continued.

Government supporters say Musharraf is walking a tightrope between international pressure to curb terrorism and domestic pressure from Islamic groups whose influence is rising at a time of strong anti-Western feelings in the Muslim world. But critics say his government has done little to bring political and economic reforms to the tribal areas, and they suggest that some official sectors still view the Taliban as a strategic asset because of Karzai's weak central government.

"They can send in a lot of troops, but I believe it is a question of political will," Khattak said. "These areas should be brought into the mainstream, so they can become a bridge between South and Central Asia. Instead they are a black hole."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company