Kabul's security took a serious downturn this weekend after a car-bomb attack killed four German peacekeepers on a busy Kabul street.
While attacks against US combat forces in southern Afghanistan have become more and more common, this is the first attack to have killed international peacekeepers in Kabul. And the fact that the attack occurred in the capital itself raises serious concerns about the growing confidence of Al Qaeda and other groups opposed to the US-backed Afghan government here.
Yet spokesmen for the German and Dutch-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said that danger is part of the business, and they would continue to operate as openly as they have in the past to provide security to Kabul.
"Let's make it absolutely clear that ISAF is here in Kabul because the situation is not yet stable and not yet 100 percent safe," said German Lt. Col. Thomas Lobbering.
While it is still not clear who conducted the attack, or why, there is a trend toward decreasing security in Afghanistan, and increasing attacks on foreigners. Attacks and ambushes against US forces have remained constant, but in recent months the violence has extended to aid workers, peacekeepers, and even tourists.
Afghan Defense officials say the evidence points strongly toward Al Qaeda, which has been preoccupied with US and Afghan forces. What this means for the methods of international peacekeeping is still unclear, but if peacekeepers become targets, Afghan people worry that their city is in for a long season of terrorist conflict.
"If we don't improve or strengthen our security forces in ... and around Kabul city, there will be more bomb explosions in Kabul, especially on the peacekeeping forces," says Gen. Afzal Aman, deputy security chief for Kabul. "This is the work of Al Qaeda or the supporters of the Taliban.... Normal Afghans could not and would not do this by themselves."
Shopkeeper Kais Mohammad witnessed the attack on the peacekeepers, who were heading to the Kabul airport for a flight home to Germany. "I was riding my bicycle to go to my shop, and on the way, suddenly, an explosion occurred in front of me," says Mr. Mohammad. He saw a Toyota Corolla taxi pull up alongside the bus before the explosion. "The bus went up in the air five or six meters from the right side of the road and landed on the left side .... Thanks to God that I am safe."
ISAF and Afghan officials say the bomb could have held between 200 and 1,100 pounds of explosives, and may have been set off by the taxi driver, using a remote control device. Most of the 33 German peacekeepers on board the marked ISAF bus had just completed their six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Four were killed, the others were injured and taken to Bagram Air Base for treatment. All of the soldiers but one are expected to arrive back in Germany by Monday.
Colonel Lobbering, the ISAF spokesman, said the death toll could have been much higher had the peacekeepers not been wearing flak jackets.
Deteriorating security in Afghanistan has taken its toll on foreign aid workers. This spring, a Red Cross worker from Ecuador was pulled from his car in Urozgan Province and killed. In April, an Italian tourist was killed in Zabul Province. Several aid groups pulled foreign staff from Kandahar Province this spring after a rising number of attacks and threats.
• Material from the wire services contributed to this report.