By Najim Rahim, David Zucchino and Fatima Faizi
Fearing Taliban threats, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has mostly campaigned for reelection via Skype, reaching voters outside Kabul through “virtual rallies.”
But on Tuesday, the president risked a 35-mile trip from the capital to neighboring Parwan province for a rally inside a police training compound. And there, just as the rally started, the Taliban made good on repeated vows to attack anything connected with the election, scheduled in less than two weeks.
A suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew up as people waited to be ushered into the heavily guarded compound. At least 26 people were killed and 42 were wounded in the late-morning attack, the Ministry of Interior said. Ghani, who was inside the compound, at least a half-mile from the blast, was unhurt.
A second suicide bombing in Kabul just over an hour later killed at least 22 people and wounded 38, the Interior Ministry said.
Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for both attacks, punctuating their pledge to escalate violence against the U.S.-backed government after President Donald Trump scrapped peace talks with the group just over a week ago.
Trump’s decision upended nearly a year of diplomacy that had verged on a deal with the Taliban to end the longest war in U.S. history, which began after the Taliban sheltered the plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Whether that diplomacy will be revived, and whether Trump will withdraw U.S. forces either way, remains unclear.
Ghani saw the collapse of talks as a victory because his government had been excluded. He also complained that the proposed deal lacked assurances of Taliban compliance once U.S. troops left.
There is widespread apprehension in Afghanistan that any abrupt U.S. departure could further embolden the Taliban and possibly hasten the group’s return to power.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the attacks on Tuesday had been meant to target Afghan security forces.
Mujahid said the Taliban had warned Afghans not to attend campaign rallies or other election events, calling them “military targets” because they are protected by security forces. If civilians are killed or wounded at such gatherings, he said, they are responsible for putting themselves in harm’s way.
“We carried out this attack while a fake election rally was ongoing,” Mujahid said in a WhatsApp message.
Ghani blamed the collapse of the peace talks on precisely the type of attacks undertaken by the Taliban on Tuesday.
“The Taliban are the main enemy of our republic system,” he said on his presidential Twitter account. “The Taliban once again have proved that they are not interested in peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
Ghani added that the election will proceed as scheduled Sept. 28 “so that the people can decide on their political future.”
The Kabul attack took place near the site of a suicide bomb blast on Sept. 5 that killed 12 people, including one U.S. and one Romanian soldier. Trump cited that attack as one reason he had decided to end the peace negotiations.
Most of the 26 dead in the Parwan attack were civilians, provincial health officials said.
A video posted on social media appeared to show grieving men searching the wards of the provincial hospital for relatives killed or wounded in the bombing. At least one man lay dead on the floor, and other bodies were covered by sheets or blankets.
The authenticity of that video and others on social media could not be immediately verified.
Another social media video appeared to show a pickup truck with its rear bed loaded with corpses from the Parwan attack. Women and children were among those killed, said Dr. Abdul Qasum Sangin, director of the Parwan provincial hospital.
Well before the peace talks were suspended, Ghani’s first vice presidential running mate, Amrullah Saleh, narrowly escaped a complex attack that included a car bomb and a half-dozen suicide bombers who penetrated his political headquarters in Kabul in July.
Saleh attended the Parwan rally with Ghani but was not harmed, a member of his staff said.
The two attacks Tuesday came as Afghan security forces made final preparations to secure more than 5,300 voting sites for the Sept. 28 election, with 400 to 500 closed at the moment for security reasons. Parliamentary elections last year and the presidential election in 2014 were marred by violence and by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
“We are concerned about the security situation and that is the biggest issue,” Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s election commission, said as campaigning began to pick up last week. “We are in touch with Afghan security forces and they are committed to providing election security.”
Security forces are responsible for protecting the 18 candidates on the ballot and their staffs, although several candidates have said they dropped out of the race.
The Afghan army, police and national security agency are also battling Taliban fighters in parts of the country, with government centers under attack in several northern provinces. Since the peace talks began late last year, both sides have escalated military operations.
Since the talks were suspended, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said U.S. aircraft and Special Operations forces, in support of the Afghan government and military, have intensified attacks on the Taliban.
At the same time, the militants have warned that they are ramping up their own operations and have threatened to kill more U.S. troops.
A U.S. Special Forces soldier was killed in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, according to Defense Department officials. The soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy W. Griffin, 40, was the 17th U.S. service member to die in combat operations this year, the highest number of losses in a year since 2014, when the Pentagon announced the end of combat operations in Afghanistan.
At the United Nations on Tuesday, the Security Council overcame a veto threat from China to unanimously approve a resolution extending the 17-year-old U.N. mission in Afghanistan, which is assisting in the election preparations.
China had objected to the omission from the resolution of specific language endorsing its global Belt and Road infrastructure project in Afghanistan. After late-night negotiations China agreed to compromise language endorsing efforts that promote “regional connectivity” without mentioning its project, diplomats said.
“To adopt this resolution is a very important signal going out to the Afghan people,” said Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s ambassador to the U.N., who along with his Indonesian counterpart, drafted the resolution. “We send to the Afghan people the message that the U.N. stands by them, we don’t just simply roll over.”