The center of the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad was rocked by a massive explosion this afternoon when a bomb exploded just yards away from the truck carrying the country's interim defense minister, General Mohammed Qasim Fahim. Afghan officials say Fahim was the target of an assassination attempt designed to destabilize the administration of Hamid Karzai.
The minister had traveled by helicopter with other members of the interim administration and Afghan military commanders to Jalalabad for an official visit to promote the development of a national army and to help stamp out the cultivation of poppies cultivated for the international drug trade. Government officials survived the explosion, but at least four civilians died in the blast, including one child. Some two dozen others were injured.
The bomb exploded as a convoy carrying Fahim, General Atta Mohammed, the military commander in charge of Mazar-i-Sharif, and the Minister for Tribal Affairs, Amanullah Zadran, made its way from the Jalalabad airport to the palace of Jalalabad governor Hazrat Ali. NEWSWEEK was part of the convoy. As the two dozen or so trucks reached an intersection near the heart of the city, a thundering explosion eclipsed the sounds of cheering school children and locals eager to welcome Fahim. A giant cloud of black smoke billowed skyward and the panic-stricken crowd of well-wishers scattered in all directions.
Hundreds of school girls who had been smiling and waving Afghan flags moments earlier began to sob even as local officials in charge of the official reception urged them to keep clapping, telling them to "smile, smile." Meanwhile, the trucks carrying Fahim and the other officials scrambled to turn around in the midst of the confusion. Soldiers spilled off vehicles into the streets, cocking their rifles and searching the crowd for potential threats. A pick-up truck came screaming through the crowd, horn blaring, as bloodied bomb victims were jolted around in the truck bed on their way to the hospital.
At the site of the bombing, the dusty brown streets were reddened by pools of blood that spotted the street for 50 yards in each direction. The blast blew out the windows of a nearby pharmacy, leaving glass and medicine packets strewn across the floor. A sickening smell of blood and burnt flesh permeated the air. A large generator that had been used to hide the explosive was little more than a charred heap of smoldering metal, attracting the gazes of curious and frightened onlookers.
Several were still clearly dazed from the attack, oblivious to the blood that had stained their clothes and bodies. "Three cars had already passed when the bomb exploded," said Nasim, 28, a soldier whose cream-colored shalwar kameez robe was soaked in blood from helping the victims, "We had made ourselves ready to salute, but then the bomb exploded." Hazrat Ali, the governor of Jalalabad, was in the fourth car of the convoy, alongside Fahim. "I was close to the explosion," he said, still visibly shocked. "I said this was the work of criminals. I can't accuse anyone right now. But in a few days we will find them."
That may prove difficult. In recent days, the Karzai administration has been plagued with problems similar to today's events in Jalalabad. Last week, police in Kabul rounded up some 300 people they claimed were plotting terrorist acts in the capital. Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni said security forces had seized AK-47's, walkie-talkies, manuals of planned attacks and remote control bombs. Officials say the raids targeted members of Hezb-i-Islami, founded by the radically anti-western warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He has yet to be found, but some believe Hekmatyar, along with others opposed to the presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan, have begun plotting counter-attacks throughout Afghanistan to destabilize an already fragile situation. The International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) who patrol Kabul took fire at their compound in the western part of the city last week, and one of ISAF's eastern bases was targeted by rockets on Sunday.
With the latest attack, the scope and seriousness of the threat seems to be growing. Officials in Jalalabad say the last few days have seen an increase in criminal activity linked to groups wanting to destabilize the country. There is speculation that drug bosses angry about the administration's attempts to curb poppy cultivation could have been involved in today's explosion. Tensions in the city are also aggravated by a fierce rivalry between Jalalabad governor Hazrat Ali and police chief Haji Zaman.
Back at the palace after the bomb attack, Fahim brandished a leaflet that local officials say has been circulating around Jalalabad in recent days. "Our country has been invaded," the pamphlet read, "All Afghans are obliged to do jihad as we did to the Russians. Those Afghans who are cooperating with the Americans should be treated the same as the Russians. Instead of doing jihad, some of the Afghans request the expansion of the infidel forces in our country. To anybody who helps in the circulation of this leaflet, may Allah give him reward and sympathy." Fahim insisted the bomb attack was designed to "destabilize" the region, not just eliminate him. "It was not just to kill me," he said, "They wanted to send a message."
If the bomb attack was meant as a scare tactic, it seems to have worked. Fahim was originally scheduled to stay overnight in Jalalabad to promote efforts to stop the poppy cultivation rampant in the region. Instead, he rushed through a feast prepared by Ali at the governor's palace, delivered a speech at a military garrison where Afghan commanders are working to create a national army, and then hightailed it back to the airport to catch a helicopter bound for Kabul.
Fahim maintained an upbeat note during his speech. "It's a great time for Afghanistan," he said to the crowd of local tribal elders, mullahs and soldiers who fought in the war against the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. "We're able to discuss our differences with each other. It'sa happy time." Privately, however, the mood among his traveling companions was decidedly dour. "It's a shame and a disgrace," muttered one senior Afghan official accompanying Fahim. But Fahim's escape meant it wasn't as disruptive as it might have been.