Taliban send a deadly warning to Afghan voters

As the country prepares for elections this week, a car bomb has killed seven in Kabul. Rahim Faiez, Jason Straziuso and Fisnik Abrashi report

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'