By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 16, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 15 -- A suicide car bombing outside the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan's capital Saturday was the most serious indication yet of the Taliban's designs to disrupt Thursday's presidential election through violence.
The Islamist militia, which is fighting NATO and Afghan forces for control in wide swaths of the country, has fired rockets into Kabul in recent days, but the attack Saturday was the most brutal in the heart of the capital in six months. At least seven Afghans were killed, and more than 90 people were wounded.
If such violence succeeds in scaring voters away from the polls, Afghanistan faces a serious long-term problem. A low turnout, particularly in Taliban strongholds in the south, could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election results.
"It is the Taliban who are trying to deny Afghans their political rights," said a senior U.S. official in Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That's a lesson that ought to come home to all of us."
President Hamid Karzai, the front-runner in the election, said in a statement that the attack was an attempt by the nation's enemies to "create fear among the people." But he added that Afghans "are not afraid of any threats, and they will go to cast their votes."
Guarding voting sites and securing roads to the polling places has become the top priority for NATO forces. Of the 17 million registered voters, a turnout of more than 50 percent would be considered high, some U.S. officials say. In recent days, American military officials have received intelligence reports warning of suicide bombings and other catastrophic Taliban attacks, as well as quieter acts of intimidation. Insurgents issued similar threats of violence, and carried out some of them, ahead of elections in Iraq.
"Letters at night, threats and that sort of thing to try to dissuade people from going to the polls," the senior U.S. official said. "My impression is frankly there's much more in the way of intimidation than actual violence."
In the heated environment of the campaign's final days, the bombing became a political issue, with Karzai's rivals arguing that he is responsible for the escalating violence in the country.
"I'm absolutely sure that we cannot bring peace in Afghanistan when the criminals of war are in power in Afghanistan," said Ramazan Bashardost, a presidential candidate. "I believe the Taliban war is not against American or British troops as much as it is a war against the Taliban enemy, which means" Karzai.
The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for Saturday's car bombing at the security checkpoint outside the diplomatic compound that houses the U.S. and NATO military headquarters and the U.S. Embassy. Reached by telephone, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said a fighter named Ahmed detonated his four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying more than 1,000 pounds of explosives in order to kill Americans and disrupt the election, which he described as an "American process."
The bombing occurred at 8:30 a.m. about 30 yards from the main compound entrance on a heavily guarded street. The explosion blew a hole in the road, crumbled concrete walls and shattered windows of buildings hundreds of yards away. The less-fortified row of buildings opposite the compound sustained the greatest damage, including the office of the Afghan Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation and the government television and radio station.
Mohammad Rafi, 22, a cook at Super Burger, was preparing a salad when the explosion shattered the plate glass window of his restaurant. He fell to the floor as shards rained down.
"Only God knows why they did this. I pray that God destroys them," Rafi said. "We just hate the suicide bombers."
Diplomats said that windows were shattered inside the compound but that damage was relatively light, with barriers mitigating much of the force of the blast. Indian ambassador Jayant Prasad wandered out of the compound surrounded by guards and said the windows of his residence and those of the Spanish ambassador's were blown out.
Western military spokesmen said that "several" international troops were injured but that none was killed. One U.S. military official said it appeared that no Americans were seriously injured.
Many of the wounded Afghans were taken to a nearby hospital. Raz Muhammad Alami, the technical and operations deputy minister at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, said 57 people from his ministry were injured, 36 seriously.
In the crowded recovery room for women, bombing victims moaned in pain and some appeared unconscious. One ministry employee, Freshata Nazami, 21, said she was walking along a window-lined hallway and fell to the floor when the blast occurred. "It was such a disastrous day," she said from her hospital bed, with dried blood spots on her face and shirt. "My head was injured. I was running to the basement. When I got to the basement, I lost consciousness."
"All our friends and colleagues were injured, and I don't know where they are," she said.
Officials said they expect more pre-election violence. The bombing prompted the United Nations to restrict movement of its personnel in Kabul, but the measures were lifted by the end of the day.
"Incidents like this were probably to some extent expected, although you can never predict where they will happen," said Adrian Edwards, a U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan. "This is probably one of the most complex elections attempted anywhere, and, unfortunately, insecurity is part of that complexity."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.