Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during the first day of his reelection campaign in Kabul. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Amid tight security and raucous cheers, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani launched his reelection campaign Sunday, telling several thousand supporters in a giant auditorium that he was running for a second five-year term “to complete the unfinished project of building a democratic state.”

But hours later, insurgents attacked the Kabul office of Ghani’s top running mate, Amrullah Saleh, a former national intelligence chief. Saleh, who had appeared at the rally, was lightly wounded in one arm and treated.An Interior Ministry spokesman said Monday that at least 20 people were killed and about 50 wounded in the attack, the Associated Press reported. Saleh and about 85 other people were safely evacuated, the official said.

Security forces continued to battle the attackers, who were armed with explosives and guns, into the evening. No group immediately asserted responsibility for the assault on the headquarters of Saleh’s Green Trend party, but the Taliban has often targeted intelligence facilities and personnel. 

The violence on the opening day of Afghanistan’s presidential campaign underscored the confusion, uncertainty and danger overshadowing the election plans, even as peace talks between Taliban and U.S. officials continue. Eighteen candidates are registered for the Sept. 28 vote, but there are still widespread doubts over whether it should be held. 

Many Afghans fear that threats and attacks by the Taliban, which controls or contests nearly half of the country’s 400 districts, may fatally disrupt the polls. Many, including some presidential candidates, also say reaching an accord with Taliban leaders is a much higher priority, and an election campaign could undermine peace talks.

In an interview Saturday, Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, where the peace talks with U.S. officials are being held, said that the Afghan elections would “resolve nothing” and that they could even prolong the conflict. He also said the insurgents will not stop their attacks as the peace discussions advance and the Afghan election campaign gets underway. 

In a report released Sunday, the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network noted that some experts believe a change of government should not take place until the Taliban can participate, although others argue that “sacrificing elections might mean they are never again held” under Taliban control.

The network quotes an aide to one candidate saying “We prefer to have peace first and then conduct elections in a peaceful environment.”

U.S. officials, who have held seven rounds of peace negotiations with Taliban leaders, are pressing for a partial peace settlement by early September. But progress has been stymied by the Taliban’s refusal to hold formal talks with Afghan officials or agree on a long-term cease-fire. The insurgents seek a full withdrawal of U.S. troops and a dominant future role in power. 

On Sunday, one of Ghani’s top rivals, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, held a subdued campaign launch in a crowded wedding hall in the capital. Abdullah, who was also Ghani’s top rival in the 2014 election and is his estranged governing partner, said he had “come from the people” and would work to “take this broken ship to its desired destination.”

Abdullah offered few policy ideas and refrained from directly criticizing Ghani, with whom he has clashed often since being persuaded by U.S. officials to share power after a disastrous election. But a senior campaign adviser, former finance official Anwar Ahady, told the crowd that Ghani had run the country through “micromanagement and monopoly of power. That is what we will end if we win.”

Ghani, 70, said Sunday he is determined to hold the election. He is considered the front-runner despite widespread public discontent with the economy and the ongoing war. He has benefited from divisions among his rivals as well as the advantages of incumbency.

Some critics have accused him of making high-level job appointments to buy electoral support. He recently appointed a new ambassador to India who is under investigation by the attorney general for alleged corruption.

At the elaborately scripted rally, Ghani’s clever sound bites, delivered in a raspy roar, were a departure from the former World Bank official’s usual policy prescriptions. The audience loved the performance, with many rising to their feet to shout encouragement. 

“People say I am mad, but I am mad for progress,” Ghani declared to cheers and laughter. He vowed to rid the country of dependence on foreign charity. In a line referring indirectly to President Trump’s recent claim that he could end the war in Afghanistan in 10 days with massive bombing, Ghani vowed that “hundreds of bombs can’t destroy Afghanistan.”

The one discordant moment came when a man rose and shouted that Ghani was a “liar” who had cheated the public. Plainclothes security personnel immediately grabbed the man and hustled him out of the premises. They then appeared to demand that journalists erase footage of the incident, provoking an altercation.

Other major candidates in the race include Hanif Atmar, a former national security adviser to Ghani; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former fugitive militia leader who returned to Kabul in 2017 under a peace deal; Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief; and Ahmad Wali Massoud, a brother of the slain anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. 

No other candidates have held public rallies yet, and analysts predict Taliban threats will make it difficult for all candidates to campaign in much of the country. They worry that voter turnout will be extremely low, jeopardizing credible results.

During parliamentary elections last fall, violence was reported in many areas, and polls in two provinces were postponed. 

Public enthusiasm for the presidential election has been subdued, and partisan and personal bickering among Ghani’s opponents have added to voter disillusionment. After Ghani’s rally ended and delegates were pouring into the streets, a man behind the counter at a nearby grocery store watched with a grim expression.

“There is only one thing that matters for Afghans, and that is peace,” said the shopkeeper, who gave his name as Neematullah. “Too many people are being killed every day.

“Elections will not help. None of these candidates can bring peace, not Ghani or Abdullah. None of them.”