A suicide car bomber struck near a NATO convoy early Tuesday in Kabul, injuring many Afghan civilians. The attack, which was claimed by the Taliban, followed the arrival late Monday of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a surprise visit to Kabul to meet Afghan leaders and US military commanders. He was expected to meet President Hamid Karzai later Tuesday.
Mr. Gates's visit comes amid increased fighting by Taliban insurgents. This has been the most violent year on record since the US-led invasion in 2001. Political turmoil in neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban draws militant support and seeks sanctuary, may be aiding the insurgency, say US officials. A senior US defense official warned that Al Qaeda may also be regrouping in Afghanistan, its former base.
Agence France-Presse reports that the suicide bomber had sought to target NATO-led foreign troops in Kabul, but detonated his car bomb early. Around 140 suicide attacks have been carried out so far in Afghanistan this year.
The target of the blast was two vehicles from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) travelling to the airport but there were no casualties to troops, Sergeant Deitir Baumann told AFP.
An ISAF statement said the bomber was in a car and that 22 Afghans were wounded but there were no NATO casualties….
One of the Taliban's main spokesmen, Zabihullah Mujahed, said the extremist group was responsible for the attack. He said the suicide bomber was a university student in Kabul but there was no way of checking the claim.
Citing an Afghan police official, Reuters reported a lower figure of 10 injured civilians. It also reported that a NATO vehicle was damaged in the blast, but no troops were injured.
Gates wasn't in the area at the time of the blast. An anonymous senior defense official traveling with him earlier told reporters there were signs of Al Qaeda stepping up its activities in Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban until 2001, says The New York Times.
The official cautioned, "It's pretty hard to pull trends out of a few indications," but added that even tentative evidence of increased Qaeda activity in Afghanistan "is something we are concerned with."
…Pentagon and military officials said the higher number of attacks and roadside bombings could be attributed to increased money for the insurgency from foreign sources and profits from domestic poppy production. The officials also attribute the increase in violence to the sanctuary provided in tribal areas of Pakistan that has allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup.
Speaking before his visit, Gates told reporters that he planned to discuss the rising violence with defense leaders from NATO countries later this month at a summit in Scotland, the Associated Press reports.
"I'm not worried about a backslide as much as I am (about) how we continue the momentum going forward," Gates told reporters in Djibouti on Monday just before he left for Kabul. "One of the clear concerns that we all have is that in the last two or three years there has been a continuing increase in the overall level of violence."
In the latest fighting, around 40 Taliban combatants died in several days of clashes in southern Afghanistan, Voice of America News reported. No casualties were reported among the Afghan or foreign troops during combat.
General Sayed Agha Saqib, the police chief of Kandahar province, said Sunday, that 35 Taliban were killed and 10 captured in a three-day operation that ended Saturday in the mountainous Shah Wali Kot district.
Saqib said Afghan and foreign troops clashed with another group of militants in Kandahar's Zhari district Saturday, killing five fighters and detaining four others.
The Washington Post reported from Kabul that one military strategy that US defense officials were considering was to recruit and train Afghan tribesmen to fight the Taliban, replicating a US approach in Iraq. In both countries, enfeebled central governments are seen as unable to mount an effective security response to locally based Islamic militants.
The tribal initiative would begin with a British pilot project in Helmand province and would be broadly similar to a U.S. military drive in Iraq that has recruited thousands of local fighters – including tribesmen and former insurgents – to police their neighborhoods, the officials said.
In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the plan reflects a concern among senior U.S. officials that coalition forces have relied too much on the central government to build security forces, an approach they say runs counter to both tribal culture and the need for community policing.
The commander of the US Marines Corps is pushing to redeploy troops from Iraq to fight against the Taliban, The Christian Science Monitor reported last week. The proposal, leaked to the press in October, has met resistance from other military leaders.
Critics of the plan worry that it would leave too much risk for the Army in Iraq, but [General James] Conway argues that the Corps would assume more risk in Afghanistan than it has now in Anbar Province, where violence has abated considerably….
Adm. William Fallon, head of US Central Command, which oversees operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is said to be "very strong" on the Conway option, says another senior military official, who asked not to be named, adding that the whole mix of forces must be looked at before a decision can be made.
The British Broadcasting Corp. said a recent opinion poll found that most Afghans were hopeful about their future and firmly opposed to the Taliban, but frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction of their war-torn country. Despite the rise in violence, levels of optimism had fallen only slightly from a poll taken a year ago.