Who's to blame for Kabul bomb?

KABUL, Afghanistan — The center of Kabul was rocked by bomb blasts and gunfire Friday, leaving at least 17 people dead and more than 30 injured, according to police sources. It took security forces a little over two hours to clear the area of combatants, but it will take much more time to sift through the conflicting theories of motives and perpetrators, despite early Taliban claims of responsibility.

The first blast came just before 6:30 this morning, jolting a sleeping city awake. Friday is the Muslim holy day, meaning that shops were closed and streets all but deserted when the explosion occurred. The reverberations could be felt throughout most of Kabul.

Initial reports pegged the target as the Kabul City Center, a gleaming glass and chrome structure right in the heart of the business district. Owned by Afghan businessman Haji Abdul Qudus Safi, the complex houses the Safi Landmark, a hotel popular with visiting foreigners. The City Center has long been seen as a potential focus for terrorist attack, standing as it does all but unprotected on Ansari Square.

But City Center escaped with some damage to its numerous emerald-green windows; the two structures hit most seriously were the Park Residence, a slightly scruffy guest house across from Shar-e-Naw Park, and the neighboring Hamid Guesthouse. Both are just a few dozen meters from the City Center building, and both were home to mainly foreign guests.

At least 32 people were injured in the blasts and the gunfire that followed, as security forces attempted to dislodge the attackers from their posts.

Of the 17 people confirmed dead, the majority were Indian, according to Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada, head of the Kabul criminal investigation department, who briefed journalists throughout the morning. This gave rise to widespread speculation among Afghans that Pakistan, India’s arch-enemy and rival for Afghanistan’s friendship, was behind the attack.

President Hamid Karzai was quick to issue a statement saying that his government was launching an investigation into the assault. He emphasized that attacks on Indian citizens could not damage Indian-Afghan relations; but the raid and its aftermath are likely to fuel tension between India and Pakistan, which have recently resumed diplomatic talks for the first time since the attack on Mumbai in November 2008.

The Taliban were quick to claim responsibility. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed said that five suicide attackers were involved in the early morning raid; police confirmed three suicide bombers and possibly as many as five additional fighters were involved in the attack.

But, as pundits frequently point out, the Taliban is far from a cohesive body. It is, rather, made up of many different groups with differing interests and allegiances.

One faction in particular, the network under the command of Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, is based in Miran Shah, Pakistan, and is thought to maintain extremely close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The Haqqani Network has been shown to be behind many of the deadliest attacks in Kabul over the last few years, including the raid on the Serena Hotel in January 2008, the bombing of the Indian Embassy in July 2008, and an assassination attempt on Karzai in April 2008.

Throughout the morning sirens could be heard in various parts of the city, as ambulances ferried the wounded to hospitals, and vans took the dead to the Forensic Medicine Laboratory in the northwest corner of Kabul.

Police closed off much of the downtown area, snarling traffic and fraying tempers.

This is the second major incident in Kabul this year. On Jan. 18 seven insurgents laid siege to government ministries just steps away from the presidential palace. In addition to the attackers, five people were killed in that raid, including one child.

The Taliban has remained silent on motivation for the attack but the explosion and gunfire in the capital echoed the fierce fighting that continues sporadically in Marjah, a district of Helmand province. Operation Moshtarak, launched on Feb. 13, is the largest offensive of the war to date, and has been advertised as the first major test of the new strategy announced by President Barack Obama in his West Point speech on Dec. 1.

On Feb. 25 the Afghan government declared victory in Marjah, hoisting the Afghan flag over the district center.

Widely hailed as a success by the U.S. military and diplomatic community, Moshtarak seeks to “break the back” of the Taliban and drive them toward the negotiating table.

“Some people think the Taliban need a little more stick before they get to taste the carrot,” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.

But the Taliban may have a few sticks of their own, judging by this latest attack.

The latest carnage in Kabul is likely to deepen growing divides among international allies on the efficacy of the Afghan war.

The Dutch government recently fell in a bitter dispute about its commitment in Afghanistan, and its 2,000 troops are due to leave the country by year’s end.

The Canadian Embassy issued a communique on Friday strongly condemning the attacks and reaffirming its commitment to Afghanistan.

“Attacks such as today’s bombing will not deter Canada or its international partners from its commitment to support Afghans in their efforts to create a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society,” said the Embassy.

But Canada is also on the way out of the country: its combat troops will leave by the summer of 2011. Canadian Lieutenant General Marc Lessard reaffirmed this in an interview published Thursday.

“It is cease operations across the board in July, 2011,” he told Canwest News Service.“The (operational mentor and liaison team), the battle group, the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), helicopters. Operations cease.”

The U.S. Embassy issued its own statement, stressing the performance of the Afghan security forces in restoring order.

“The United States strongly condemns the brutal attack this morning in central Kabul, which has killed and injured many innocent Afghans and citizens of other nations. We condemn this inhumane act by the Taliban, which was carried out on a holiday focused on family and prayer.

"We commend the Afghan National Security Forces for bringing the situation under control quickly. Our thoughts and condolences are with those affected by this act of terror. The United States remains firmly committed to working side-by-side with the Afghan Government and people, as well as our international partners, to deliver security and a better future to Afghanistan.”

By mid-afternoon the city was quiet, the normal Friday somnolence overtaking the morning’s flurry of crisis. But with attacks on the capital becoming increasingly frequent, no one could predict how long the calm would last.