A suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed car at the gates of an Italian military base Monday in one of two attacks on the relatively secure western city of Herat, killing at least five Afghans in a major commercial centre slated to be handed over by NATO to Afghan control in July.
The bombings claimed by the Taliban were the second major attack in three days as insurgents expand their targets outside the southern and eastern theatres that were the focus of American offensives last winter. In other violence around Afghanistan, four NATO service members were killed Monday.
Taliban attacks inside Herat are rare, though there are violence-prone districts on the city’s outskirts. But insurgents have been increasing attacks around the country since the group announced its spring offensive in late April and reaching into areas that had been fairly quiet until now.
The expansion of Taliban assaults into new areas suggests that the insurgents are making a statement about their reach just as NATO is trying to shift some more secure areas of the country to Afghan control. The international alliance aims to transition cities or provinces piecemeal to reach the goal of total Afghan control by 2014.
Herat, western Afghanistan’s largest city, is one of seven areas scheduled to be handed over to Afghan control in July as the first step of the transition of nationwide security responsibility to Afghan troops. Support for the Afghan war has been waning in allied countries after nearly 10 years of fighting and many NATO nations are sketching drawdown plans. Some have argued that the death of Osama bin Laden means that there is less need to spend money and lives in Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week that plans for handing over control of the seven areas to Afghan soldiers in July remain on course, despite the new attacks. But attacks like those Monday could undermine international support even for the existing plan of gradual withdrawal.
The first explosion hit at the gates of the Italian base in a residential area of the city. Police said more than 30 were wounded. Five Italian soldiers were among the wounded, one of them seriously injured, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said. A second explosion ripped through a bus stop at a busy downtown intersection and a third explosion was heard near the Italian base, officials said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said both attackers were aiming for the Italian base but the second explosion occurred when the bomber couldn’t get to his target.
“That blast may have had some civilian casualties,” Ahmadi said. “Our aim was not to kill civilians.”
The bombings followed close behind another major attack on Saturday, when an explosion struck inside the governor’s compound in northeastern Takhar province. It killed two top Afghan police commanders and wounded the German general who commands NATO forces in the north. Two Germans and two other Afghans died.
Among those killed was Gen. Daud Daud, a leader in the Northern Alliance group of minorities who fought against the Taliban. Daud was a former deputy interior minister for counternarcotics and a former bodyguard of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed in an al—Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that provoked the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Leaders in the Northern Alliance say they want peace, but they are afraid of any deal that would give power to the Taliban, their former foes comprised mostly of ethnic Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan. Also, the Afghan government is concerned that Daud’s death -- one in a spate of killings targeting Northern Alliance figures -- could further erode ethnic Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek group support for its efforts to make peace with the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai rushed back from a trip abroad after learning of Daud’s death, while his former presidential challenger issued a statement saying that it was a loss for those pushing for peace in the country.
“He was the strongest advocate of preserving Afghanistan’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Abdullah Abdullah wrote in a statement.
In Herat, an Afghan policeman and four civilians were killed in the explosions, said Raouf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the regional police commander.
Gunfire followed the attack at the Italian base and the police spokesman said two assailants holed themselves up in a nearby residential building. Sporadic shooting followed for hours before Afghan security forces shot them dead, he said.
The second explosion was about a mile from the base at an intersection packed with businesses and traffic. Ahmadi, the police spokesman, said most of the casualties were from the second blast but did not provide a specific breakdown.
While Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi offered his “encouragement” to all Italian soldiers Monday, a prominent member of Berlusconi’s Freedom Party, Margherita Bonniver, said the Herat attack should speed efforts to negotiate a pullout.
“A political solution will have to be effective to permit the international contingent to make an agreed upon withdrawal in the briefest time possible,” Bonniver said.
Four NATO service members died on Monday- two in a bomb attack in the east, one when a helicopter made a hard landing in the south and one when an Afghan soldier turned his gun on his NATO colleague.
The turncoat attack happened at an Afghan army base in southern Uruzgan province and the shooter escaped, said Abdul Hamid Wardak, the Afghan army commander for southern Afghanistan.
NATO confirmed that one of its service members was killed by a man in an Afghan army uniform but did not provide further details. Both NATO and the Afghan government said they are investigating.