Police and international peacekeepers are on high alert on the streets of Kabul, just days after a foiled suicide bombing attack near the palace of President Hamid Karzai.
The capture of two men, an Afghan national and an unnamed foreigner who had packed the doors of his Toyota Corolla with 660 pounds of explosives, has been hailed as a success story of cooperation and intelligence-sharing between Afghan and international security forces. But there are indications that this assassination attempt may not be the last.
Kabul police officials say they have received reports from Afghan intelligence sources that there may be as many as 25 armed Al Qaeda members in Kabul, ready to strike Afghan ministers, foreign diplomats, US representatives, or foreign aid workers.
Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh says the accused bomber has admitted to being assigned by Al Qaeda to assassinate Mr. Karzai, and if that effort failed, to target foreigners in the city.
"He says he wanted to go to heaven by killing himself and also killing infidels and supporters of infidels in Afghanistan," Mr. Saleh told The Associated Press in Kabul.
In addition, Afghan police officials say that Afghan intelligence agents have traced a Pakistani national, Khoshal Khan, to the city of Kabul. According to these reports, Mr. Khan is carrying explosives similar to those discovered in the foiled bombing attack on Monday.
"We are following Khoshal, but we don't have his photo, we only know his name," says Haji Amanullah, deputy chief of police in the Interior Ministry in Kabul. "We have deployed intelligence officials on all the major incoming and outgoing routes to Kabul city. It's a big challenge."
For the top leaders of Afghan's transitional government, it's a sign of violent political times, as Afghanistan enters its eighth month of government after the destruction of the Taliban regime. Two top Afghan cabinet ministers have already been assassinated in the past six months, including Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir last month in his hometown of Jalalabad.He was gunned down by two unknown assailants who have yet to be captured.The increasing danger has led Karzai to take the controversial step last week of replacing his platoon of Afghan guards with American Special Forces at the presidential palace.
In a recent interview with Kabul Weekly, a local newspaper, Karzai explained that replacing Afghans with American soldiers should not be interpreted as distrust of the Afghans or a sign of growing American control of the Afghan government. American forces and international peacekeepers offered US guards last month, after Mr. Qadir's death, Karzai said, and his government accepted the offer, "because these forces are better trained and have better technology."
Such caution may be prudent in a country where competing tribal, religious, and personal rivalries still dominate the political scene. Some diplomats say that one more major assassination particularly of Hamid Karzai could tip the nation back to the brink of civil war. And instability may be precisely the goal of Afghanistan's enemies, whether they are members of Al Qaeda or rogue agents of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency, which once supported the Taliban.
"As you know, the bomber was discovered to be a Pakistani national, and we have had a long enmity with Pakistan," says Mr. Amanullah, the deputy police chief. "Either the US Embassy was the target or maybe Karzai himself. And on every corner, there are US nationals and aid workers walking. So whatever happened, it would have been a sign of weak security in the city, and they want that."
The arrest of the suicide bomber, whose name has not been released, resulted from a tip from intelligence sources working with the International Security and Assistance Force, a peacekeeping force that has prime responsibility for maintaining security in Kabul.
"It is a good example of coordination between the Afghan transitional authority and ISAF," says Major Murat Pekgulec, a Turkish Army officer and spokesman for the ISAF in Kabul. "ISAF provided the intelligence about the suspected bomber, and the car was captured by Afghan police."
But the suicide bomb attempt also served as a warning sign, Major Pekgulec says, and ISAF has added new patrols in the city of Kabul itself and created additional checkpoints along all six major roads leading into Kabul. ISAF has also trained some 60 Afghan soldiers to be bodyguards for top Afghan officials.
Before, Afghan officials relied on poorly trained bodyguards who were personally loyal to them, says Suha Bacanakgil, another ISAF spokesman. As a result, whenever there was a change in cabinet positions, many top officials went unprotected for several days, because the government had yet to provide them with bodyguards.
"In the assassination of Haji Qadir, that was his first day in office as vice president, and there was no system of bodyguards to protect him," says Mr. Bacanakgil. "It was easy for terrorists to know that he would be unprotected. He had exactly nobody to protect him."
But putting armed men around a leader is one thing. Finding and stopping a suicide bomber is something else.
In the case of the Monday bomber, there are signs that terrorists in Pakistan may be behind the attack. Afghan police say the car had been prepared in the Pakistani town of Wana, in the border tribal area of Waziristan. Wana is a known stronghold of Al Qaeda support, where a joint US-Pakistani raid on an Al Qaeda compound in late June led to the deaths of 10 Pakistani soldiers.
The car was equipped with two remote-control devices for detonating the bombs at a distance, along with secondary detonation switches fixed inside the car. It was also packed with nearly a half ton of C-4 explosives, liquid explosives, and shrapnel. Saleh said: "They put a lot of thought into it."