Five days before an election that the Taliban have vowed to disrupt bloodily, a suicide car bomb exploded yesterday outside the main gate of Nato's headquarters, killing seven and wounding 91 – many of them children – in the biggest attack in Kabul for six months.
The bomber evaded several rings of Afghan police and detonated his explosives on the doorstep of the international military headquarters, an assault possibly aimed at sending the message that the Taliban can attack anywhere. Militants have warned Afghans not to vote and have threatened to attack voting sites in this, the country's second direct presidential election. The latest polls put President Hamid Karzai at 44 per cent, a strong lead, but as yet not decisive enough for a first-round victory.
The explosion was the first major attack in Kabul since February, when eight Taliban suicide bombers struck three government buildings, killing 20 people. The new attack was clearly aimed at the heart of the Western presence in the capital. The Nato headquarters – where the US military commander, General Stanley McChrystal, is based – is next to the US Embassy in the same street as the presidential palace and Afghanistan's transport ministry.
Bloodied and dazed, Afghans wandered the street after the blast, which rattled the capital and sent a black plume of smoke skyward. Children – many of whom congregate outside the Nato base to sell chewing gum to Westerners – were among the wounded. Windows of nearby antique shops were shattered and the ground was smeared with blood. The Taliban claimed responsibility and said the target was the Nato headquarters and the US Embassy. A top Kabul police official blamed al-Qa'ida.
Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, spokesman for the Nato-led force, said that soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force had been wounded in the 8.35am blast, which occurred 30 yards from Nato's front gate. The headquarters has several large cement blocks and steel gates that prevent anyone from reaching the entrance, and the bomber was not able to breach those barriers. Afghan security forces stopped the vehicle, after which the bomber, who is believed to have passed through three police checkpoints, detonated the explosives.
The attack is the latest in a series of spectacular strikes by Afghan militants. The Taliban have carried out several co-ordinated attacks in the past few months, with multiple teams of insurgents assaulting government sites. Military analysts have attributed the increasingly sophisticaticated nature of the atrocities to training by al-Qa'ida operatives.
Afghanistan has been braced for attacks ahead of an election which President Barack Obama has described as the most important event to take place in the country this year. International workers were planning to work from home this week or had been encouraged to leave the country. Nato and Afghan troops were assigned to protect voting sites, particularly in regions where militants hold sway.
The White House has said that the election is not about who wins, but rather a test of the ability of US forces to protect civilians, and the willingness of voters to accept that help. The success of the revised strategy depends on winning the trust of civilians. US officials stress that the elections are being run by Afghans, hoping the country will embrace the results as homegrown rather than the work of foreign fixers.
Mr Obama has sent 17,000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan this year to help to blunt a resurgent Taliban ahead of the voting, and his administration is spending millions to help the underperforming Afghan government to run a relatively safe and open election. More than 100,000 US and Nato troops are in the country, as well as 175,000 Afghan soldiers and police. But they must protect a population of 33 million people, most living in isolated areas with few roads.
Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist who helped to prepare a forthcoming assessment of the war by General McChrystal, added another caution. "I fear popular unrest following a perceived illegitimate election more than I fear external violence," he said.
For now, Mr Karzai holds a strong lead in the presidential race, but he is still short of the majority he needs for a first-round victory, according to an opinion poll released on Friday. With less than a week to go before the ballot, Mr Karzai remains the leading candidate in a crowded field of three dozen contenders, with 44 per cent support. His main challenger, the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, trailed at 26 per cent – a dramatic increase over the 7 per cent he received in a May poll.
If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two finishers will face a run-off in early October. That could lead to a coalition uniting around a single candidate to try to defeat Mr Karzai.
The opinion poll suggests that turnout will be crucial. This is especially true in the Pashtun south – the President's support base, where Taliban fighters have been warning voters to stay away.
Mr Karzai took his campaign to the western city of Herat on Friday,, where he won the public endorsement of the Energy Minister, Ismail Khan, the political tsar of the region. Mr Karzai told a crowd of several thousand that, if re-elected, his priority would be to initiate talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
But a Taliban spokesman denied that talks were under way. "We are denying any deals with anyone," Qari Yousef Ahmedi told the Associated Press. "Don't listen to those liars. There is no truth to any talk of a ceasefire. People should not go to vote. The Taliban has no agreement with the government."
About 90 per cent of the respondents in the latest opinion poll said that they planned to vote, despite Taliban threats to disrupt the ballot. Election authorities have said that about 10 per cent of nearly 7,000 polling centres will probably have to remain shut, most of them because of poor security. The threat is the greatest in the south and east, where the country's ethnic Pashtuns live. Mr Karzai, who is himself a Pashtun, could see his share of the vote lowered if insurgent violence prevents Afghans there from leaving their homes.
In an effort to encourage voting, village elders in the south are trying to broker election-day ceasefire agreements with Taliban commanders, according to Mr Karzai's brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai. "Local elders in some of the far-flung villages are just meeting some small group commanders to not bother people during elections and let them vote," he said.
Meanwhile, ahead of Thursday's vote, there are fears that pre-election tension could boil over into street violence. Opposition candidates have been accusing Mr Karzai and his team of using state resources to ensure their re-election, while local and international monitors are convinced there will be voting irregularities.