CHARIKAR, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani stepped out of an armored car, accepted bouquets from costumed schoolgirls and strode onto the stage of an outdoor campaign rally just before noon Tuesday, beaming and raising his arms as thousands of people cheered and waved miniature Afghan flags.
Less than an hour afterward, in Kabul, the capital 35 miles south, a second suicide bombing near the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan Defense Ministry killed 22 people and wounded 38, officials said. The attacks, both claimed by Taliban insurgents, made Tuesday the deadliest day for civilians in Afghanistan since U.S.-Taliban peace talks collapsed Sept. 8.
The pair of bombings also injected a new level of alarm into the presidential race, which the Taliban has denounced and vowed to disrupt. A Taliban statement Tuesday said the group had targeted “a rally for the fake presidential election” and noted that it had previously warned people to stay away from campaign rallies and other election events.
The attacks came one day after a U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed by small-arms fire during an operation in Wardak province, an insurgent-infested area 30 miles south of Kabul. U.S. military officials said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy W. Griffin, 41, of Greenbrier, Tenn., died of his wounds.
Griffin’s death raised to 17 the number of U.S. combat fatalities in Afghanistan this year, already higher than the 13 combat deaths in all of 2018. More than 2,400 U.S. service members have died in the conflict since 2001.
Until early this month, U.S.-Taliban peace talks seemed to be nearing a framework agreement in which the United States would have withdrawn about 5,000 troops in the coming months in exchange for Taliban officials agreeing to renounce al-Qaeda and prevent it from operating on Afghan soil.
The Ghani government has remained determined to hold elections despite President Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel the talks and public concerns about violence. Officials have pledged to protect the polls with about 70,000 security forces, but they have also decided to close more than 2,500 of about 7,400 polling sites in provinces where insurgents are active. The Taliban is estimated to control or influence nearly half of the country’s 400 districts, most of them rural.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the United States was focused on supporting the Afghan government in holding the elections before making any decisions about withdrawing American troops from the nation.
“We [are] going to focus on the elections,” he said. “The most important thing is the political thing in Afghanistan and making sure that to the extent possible we are supporting the [Afghan security forces] and maximizing the number of people who have access to the polls.”
Ghani, who is seeking a second five-year term, has campaigned steadily, flying to more than a dozen provinces to hold rallies. All have been held under heavy security, with attendees searched multiple times.
The event in Charikar, held on a field inside a police training compound, was the first to be directly targeted. Health officials said women and children were among the victims. The town is in Parwan province, one of four among Afghanistan’s 34 provinces that election officials had expected to be the safest.
On July 28, the first day of the campaign period, the Taliban detonated a truck bomb outside the Kabul office of Saleh, Ghani’s running-mate and an outspoken anti-Taliban figure. The bomb killed 30 people and wounding more than 50.
The group also claimed a car bombing Sept. 5 in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. service member. The Taliban has since hinted it would be open to reviving talks, but its chief negotiator said last week that if U.S. forces do not leave, it would keep fighting “for a hundred years.”
The threat of violence, combined with uncertainty about whether the election would be held, has severely limited campaigning for most of the other 16 candidates in the race. Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s chief executive and Ghani’s top challenger, has held a handful of outdoor events along with others in a secured convention hall in Kabul.
But in some parts of the country, there has been almost no campaigning at all. Officials in several conflicted provinces said they had not heard of any events by candidates. Some said people were discouraged by violence and fraud in previous elections and more focused on the need to end the fighting.
“People do want to vote, but it overlapped with the peace process and that lowered public enthusiasm,” said Nehmatullah Ghafari, a legislator in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the southwest. “There will be voting in some areas, but in others the Taliban can easily disrupt things, so the turnout will be very low.”
In Charikar, where thousands of people including women and families had walked to the Ghani rally, many expressed excitement about the event. Mari, 32, a mother of four who did not give her last name, said that her brother, a soldier, had been killed by the Taliban, and that her husband is deployed with the army in Helmand.
“I want to see peace and quiet and normal life return to this land,” she said. “I worry about my husband all the time. Mr. Ghani has promised to bring peace, but still the country has no security. I’m not sure whether I am going to vote for him or not.”
Several hours later, news of the bombing spread rapidly in the streets of Charikar, a bustling town on highway from Kabul. Men milled in the main bazaar, angry and upset. Ambulances stuck in traffic plied their sirens impatiently, adding to the din.
“People are afraid to go to the rallies because of suicide bombers,” said Taj Mohammed Sadeqi, 60, a shopkeeper. “Peace is more important than a presidential election. Ghani has not even been able to secure his own election rally.”
George reported from Kabul. Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.