KABUL — Afghans joined in anger and sorrow Thursday amid gutted buildings and piles of rubble in bomb-ravaged Kabul, as mourners buried the dead and officials grappled with questions over how to confront a seemingly unstoppable insurgent threat.
Wednesday’s truck bombing in the Afghan capital’s diplomatic zone — one of its most highly guarded areas — claimed more than 80 lives, injured another 460 people and devastated entire blocks in one of the bloodiest single attacks to hit Afghanistan in years.
Afghan Taliban insurgents denied any links to the explosion, which came during the first week in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. But Afghanistan also faces violence from other militant groups, including a branch of the Islamic State.
Crews with bulldozers and backhoes worked to clear away building debris and wrecked cars in a large area around the 15-foot-deep bomb crater, sealed off by hundreds of police.
Victims’ families began holding funerals and mourning ceremonies in mosques across the city. Relatives of those with severe injuries — including extreme blast burns — hovered worriedly around their hospital beds.
But the dominant mood of the capital was a mix of rage and recrimination.
At informal gatherings, on social media and in several small but intense public rallies, people denounced the government of President Ashraf Ghani for failing to prevent the ongoing violence and said the country’s future seemed increasingly bleak.
“Let us turn the silence of suffering into a national voice. We must all come together to stop terrorism from going any further and raise our voices against oppression,” a young man with a bullhorn exhorted protesters gathered at the perimeter of the blast site, surrounded by watchful riot police in flak jackets and helmets.
The Ghani government, distracted by internal conflicts, has struggled to fend off an aggressive push by Taliban insurgents in recent months, as well as a number of assaults claimed by the Islamic State.
There are 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan supporting the government’s war against the Taliban and hundreds of U.S. Special Operations forces fighting Islamic State militants. But earlier this year, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander here, said he needed several thousand more troops to break the stalemate.
In Washington, President Trump called Ghani on Thursday to express his condolences to the Afghan people. No Americans or other foreigners died in the bombing, but nine Afghan guards outside the U.S. Embassy were killed, and 11 U.S. contractors were injured, the State Department said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement: “In the face of this senseless and cowardly act, the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is unwavering. The United States stands with the government and the people of Afghanistan and will continue to support their efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity.”
The Trump administration has not yet announced whether it will increase the number of U.S. forces here or what its overall policy will be toward the volatile region.
Afghan officials said little Thursday, except for bulletins from the Public Health Ministry, adding to a sense of public confusion and frustration. On social media, there were calls for the government to resign and demands for an investigation of the bombing. Numerous groups called for a mass protest this weekend outside the presidential palace.
Part of the reason people are venting their anger at the government, analysts said, is that the perpetrators are faceless and nameless. Many residents expressed incredulity that a sewage removal truck packed with explosives managed to penetrate such a high-security area, with police checkpoints on every corner. Others said they have become much more fearful for their own safety.
“People have an anxious feeling now, like a psychological illness. I feel suspicious if I see someone carrying something,” said Gul Rahim, 42, a real estate agent whose office lost all its windows in the blast. “I was in the jihad [against the Soviet Union], and there were a lot of bombs and rockets. This was much worse.”
There were widespread rumors Thursday that Ghani, feeling pressure to respond to the crisis, has decided to order the execution of a number of prisoners from the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan. Some Afghan officials have accused the Haqqanis and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of orchestrating the bombing.
But despite the intense public reaction to the unprecedented attack, and a solemn televised speech by Ghani late Wednesday promising to take extra security measures, experts said it was far from clear whether the bombing would trigger renewed official resolve in the war effort.
“This tragedy has struck an especially emotional chord in the Afghan people. The question is whether it will be a turning-point moment for the Afghan state,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He noted that repeated intelligence failures have contributed to numerous deadly attacks in the capital.
“In reality, there’s only so much the state can do,” Kugelman added. “But with everyone so shaken up and emotions so raw, there could be a lot of pressure on the authorities to do something, and fast.”