KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide bombing that killed the mayor of Afghanistan’s second largest city Wednesday is the latest in a rash of high-level assassinations that have cast doubts over whether security gains in the Taliban’s southern heartland will survive the drawdown of U.S. "surge" troops.
Kandahar Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who was a U.S. citizen, died in his heavily guarded compound when a man detonated explosives hidden in his turban as Hamidi accepted petitions from tribal elders, officials said. At least one other person died, in addition to the bomber.
The assassination came just 15 days after the head of Kandahar's provincial council, who was Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half brother, was murdered by his chief bodyguard.
“I was inside my office when I heard the explosion,” Mohammad Afzal, a senior official who was working in another part of the compound, said in a telephone interview. “I later heard that the man had a petition in his hand and came close to the mayor, crashed his head into the mayor and set off the explosion.”
A Taliban spokesman called news media to claim responsibility for killing Hamidi, 65, who was close to Karzai’s family and had been the mayor for more than five years of Kandahar city, the cultural and spiritual capital of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban. He'd survived an ambush last year.
The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, condemned Hamidi’s slaying “in the strongest possible terms.”
But in his first meeting with foreign journalists since he assumed his post Monday, Crocker cautioned against “a rush to judgment as to exactly who did this. It’s not clear to me, for example, at this point that this was a Taliban-conducted act.”
He also held out the possibility that an intensified Taliban campaign of bombings and other “horrific acts” aimed at terrorizing people could backfire and make Afghans “pretty pissed off.”
Hamidi is the third senior official from southern Afghanistan to be killed in less than a month. At least six have died in high-profile assassinations in the south and the north that have rocked the war-savaged country’s political elite and decapitated tribal and ethnic networks that are vital to ensuring security in key areas.
The victims include Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a powerful, greatly feared warlord, and Jan Mohammed Khan, a former governor of southern Uruzgan province and a close aide to President Karzai. Both men worked closely with U.S. forces, but they also allegedly were involved in corruption and drug trafficking.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for all the assassinations. It remains unclear, however, whether the insurgents were behind the murders of Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was shot dead in his Kandahar home on July 12, and Daud Daud, the northern Afghanistan police chief, who died May 28 in a suicide bombing inside a government compound in Takhar province.
The killings of Hamidi, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Khan coincide with the start of the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops who were sent into Kandahar and the adjacent Taliban stronghold of Helmand province last year under the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy.
The troop buildup crippled the insurgents’ ability to mount conventional attacks, and brought stability to some areas. But the assassinations and an unprecedented rise in guerrilla-style strikes, bombings and intimidation are fueling uncertainty that the gains can be maintained as Afghan forces replace the American troops, who are to be gone by next summer.
“The assassinations of senior government officials not only undermine what has been achieved in terms of the surge . . . they show that the Taliban are still determined not to submit,” said Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “They demonstrate that they (the Taliban) do not agree with the reconciliation call that the Afghan government and the U.S. and the international community are enthusiastic for.”
President Barack Obama’s strategy for ending U.S.-led international combat operations and turning over full security to the Afghan government by the end of 2014 calls for gaining Taliban participation in talks on a peace accord.
“The Taliban are weakened in a sense that they cannot run operations the way they did,” Nadery said. “They do see, however, that the new tactic is giving them more advantage, more air time, more publicity, and each one of these killings gives them a psychological advantage.”
Crocker offered a different interpretation. He echoed a contention by senior American commanders that the Taliban are resorting to terrorist acts “because of significant organizational weakness” due to huge casualties they've suffered in intensified U.S.-led military operations.
He compared the situation to the 2007 U.S. troop surge into Iraq, where he served as the American ambassador, which he said also forced Sunni Muslim insurgents to resort to assassinations and other “horrific acts” as their uprising sputtered out.
“I saw a similar pattern take place in Iraq that did not have the effect that the perpetrators intended. Iraqis are pretty tough people. It just tended to piss them off,” he said, slipping into uncharacteristically undiplomatic language.
On another issue, Crocker reiterated that the U.S. doesn’t seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. He indicated, however, that Washington is seeking access to Afghan bases as part of a “strategic partnership declaration” that's being negotiated with Kabul.
“The operative word: permanent. I would not rule out a U.S.-Afghan or coalition-Afghan agreement that provides for coalition forces remaining in the country beyond 2014,” he said. “We would expect them to be joint bases, although I don’t know that for a fact. I offer you this serious prediction: They will not be permanent.”
Hamidi’s killer slipped into the mayor’s compound with about 30 tribal elders involved in a land dispute as they were admitted to present petitions to Hamidi, local officials said.
The mayor’s police bodyguards are being investigated for complicity, said Abdullah, a top aide to provincial Police Chief Abdul Razik who, like many Afghans, only uses one name.
The land dispute involved the demolition of what city officials said were homes built illegally on municipal land. Two children died and two were injured Tuesday when municipal workers demolished their houses, Zamarai, a district police chief, said in a telephone interview.
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