Afghanistan presidential frontrunner narrowly escapes assassination attempt

The suicide bombing in Kabul left at least seven people dead and raises concern over the safety of the presidential run-off election on June 14. 

By , Staff writer

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    Afghanistan's presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, center, arrives for a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, June 6, 2014. The Afghan Interior Ministry says a suicide bomber and a roadside bomb struck the convoy as it left a campaign event at a wedding hall in the capital Kabul, killing several civilians but leaving the candidate himself unharmed.
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The current front-runner to win Afghanistan's presidential election runoff narrowly escaped a suicide bombing attack on his convoy in Kabul that killed three of his bodyguards and four pedestrians.

At least one suicide car bomb targeted the convoy carrying candidate Abdullah Abdullah from a campaign rally near an Ariana Hotel (an earlier version of this story referred to the hotel as home to the CIA in Kabul; the hotel in question is a different hotel of the same name). The runoff is scheduled for June 14. His armored car was damaged in the attack – which involved two blasts – but he was unhurt, according to the Washington Post. He appeared on local television soon after, saying: "Threats can’t stop us and our people. We are still [dedicated] to what we have promised for a better future.”

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Reuters reports it was the second attack on Mr. Abdullah's life since February and that the death of either him or his opponent Ashraf Ghani could throw the country's shaky transitional process into turmoil.

By law, the elections must start again from scratch if one of the candidates is killed. Such an event could place the country in an extremely difficult position just months before the pullout at the end of the year of most foreign forces.

The election's first round won praise as an unexpected success after the Taliban, removed from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion, failed to deter millions of voters from turning out in major cities to vote. The run-off is likely to prove more difficult as the Taliban summer offensive will be in full swing.

The number of weekly attacks rose by around 10 percent to more than 350 incidents - including suicide attacks, gun battles and roadside bombs - in the final week of May, according to a Western security firm.

Abdullah came in first with about 45 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election and now faces Mr. Ghani, a former finance minister, who won about 32 percent of the vote. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has at times railed against government corruption in Afghanistan and withdrew from the heavily fraud-tainted 2009 presidential race in protest against vote-rigging.

He was close to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ethnic-Tajik who led the powerful Northern Alliance and who was assassinated by Al Qaeda just days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the US that led to the Afghan war. No friend of the Taliban, Abdullah has spoken about the need to make peace with the group, as has outgoing president Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with the US has grown strained. But unlike Karzai he has said any compromise on human rights – such as basic rights for women – is out of the question.

Fitful peace talks since 2010 between the Taliban and the Afghan government have taken on greater urgency: The US intends to reduce its troop presence to under 10,000 by the end of 2015, and to almost zero by the end of 2016. The recent prisoner swap of five senior Taliban members for US Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl underscores the importance that the US places on such talks, argues Kathy Gannon for the AP:

In the context of today's Afghanistan, the Guantanamo Five, while important figures, are not likely to change the balance of the war in any significant way. Although they held leadership positions, they weren't pivotal in policy decisions. And after having been away from Afghanistan for more than a decade, they are not likely to secure the loyalty of broad numbers of Taliban foot soldiers.

...Why did the Taliban go for the exchange now? One possibility is that the older generation of Taliban, which has been more interested in negotiations, wanted to show that there was an upside to talking to the United States by getting its prisoners back. In other words, it was a way of proving to a younger, more skeptical generation of Taliban fighters that talks with the U.S. and the Afghan government are worth pursuing.

The U.S. wants out of Afghanistan, but it doesn't want to leave behind complete chaos. In the past, it at least wanted to start a process of talks that could have some traction.

But as today's assassination attack shows, as does the rising drumbeat of attacks on civilians and the military, Afghanistan's war is a long way from being over. And an attempt on the life of Abdullah is unlikely to make him more trustful of the Taliban than he has been so far. 

On the other hand, the ability of the Taliban to threaten the life of a high-profile politician in the heart of Kabul – presumably one of the most secure places in the country – is a reminder of the risks of not pursuing peace.

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