Kabul blast: Attack kills 90 near diplomatic area in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — In one of the deadliest single strikes of the long Afghan war, a truck bomb on Wednesday devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies, serving as a horrible reminder that the capital city itself has become a hazardous battlefield.

In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces.

Afghanistan Bombing in Pictures

Even as the United States is weighing sending more troops to try to slow or reverse government losses to the Taliban this year, the bombing showed, again, that foreign troops and foreign aid have never been enough to truly secure even Kabul itself.

Although the main Taliban spokesman claimed the group had nothing to do with the attack, the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, blamed the Haqqani wing of the group. Over the years, it has been the Haqqanis who have made an industry of large-scale attacks on the capital, and the militant cell has become evermore integrated in the central leadership of the Taliban.

The deputy interior minister, Gen. Murad Ali Murad, said that in addition to the more than 80 people killed — with the toll sure to rise — at least 463 had been wounded. Still, the general said the attacker had actually failed to get all the way to his most likely target: Security cameras showed the truck being stopped by police officers who guarded the entrance to the street housing the German and Indian Embassies, as well as compounds for the coalition forces.

But for an explosion that shattered windows within a mile, including those inside the presidential palace where President Ashraf Ghani had just finished his morning briefing, a few steps off target made little difference.

With most of the city fasting to observe the holy month of Ramadan, residents urgently took up what has become a cruel routine: sweeping broken glass, calling loved ones and calling others in search of news.

In different corners of the city, workers and relatives dug graves for the ones who, with life having become a game of chance, just were not lucky on this day. Parents arrived to escort panicking children home from school, holding their hands and cautiously walking close to walls — as if walls could protect against such violence.

For more than two hours, smoke kept rising from the blast site, a crater as deep as 13 feet centered on a vast circle of destruction. The German Embassy, where officials said employees had retreated deeper into the compound after an earlier warning of a threat against them, was extensively damaged, with dozens of windows blown in. Officials said that staff members had been mostly keeping to areas deeper in the compound, after being warned several days ago of a possible threat to the embassy.

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Some of the wounded arriving at a hospital after the attack by a truck bomb. CreditMohammad Ismail/Reuters

“There was a big tremble, and then we heard a massive explosion,” Ramin Sangar, a cameraman at a television channel near the bombing site, said as he was loaded into an ambulance. “All the windows are broken. Our studios collapsed.”

As security forces established a wide cordon and ambulances whizzed between hospitals and the street, dozens of people gathered on each side of the cordon, inching closer in hopes of hearing any good news at all about their missing.

There was a heavy security presence, including forces from the United States-led coalition, and helicopters circled overhead. Emotions were running high, as the Afghan security forces and emergency medical workers, too, were working while fasting.

Intelligence officers closely checked the paperwork of emergency workers, fearing that they might have been infiltrated by militants planning a follow-up attack. At one point, after a senior police official tried to pass the cordon with a large entourage of guards, a scuffle broke out, and the police officers and intelligence officers faced off with their weapons ready. But the situation was quickly defused.

For the residents, much of the search for their loved ones then shifted to the hospitals, and crowds began to grow around the city’s treatment centers.

More than 300 people anxiously waited outside the Emergency Hospital, one of the main trauma centers in the city. Some were weeping and wailing, while others were trying to look up names of loved ones on the lists that employees handed out. Inside the hospital, where the windows had also been shattered by the force of the blast, doctors were attending to dozens of wounded.

Outside Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, the main government hospital, a white-bearded man in his 60s named Azizullah searched for news of his 22-year-old son, Abdullah, who worked at a telecommunications company near the site of the blast.

“I searched all hospitals. He is nowhere,” said Mr. Azizullah, who would crouch and then get up to pace. “Abdullah has two children, a wife and an old mother. What will I tell them?”

Mr. Azizullah received a call from someone who appeared to be inside the hospital, telling him about unrecognizable bodies.

Afghanistan

“Can you search the person whose body is cut up?” he asked the caller. “He may be my son. Try to find his documents.”

By the morgue inside the hospital, a group of men tried to figure out whether the badly burned body in the back of an ambulance was their friend Ahmad Reshad, an employee of a telecom company in his 30s. One of the men was on the phone with Mr. Reshad’s wife, as others searched the body to try to make out details that could identify him: How much money was carrying? What color tie did he have on? The body had pills in one of his pockets — was Mr. Reshad carrying pills?

They could not identify the body, so it was shipped off for a forensic examination. The men continued their search at another hospital.

In a statement, President Ghani called the attack “a crime against humanity.” Then, in a televised address as the city was preparing to go to sleep, he came out with a resolute message, calling for unity in the face of attackers that he said were receiving help from outside intelligence forces — frequent shorthand here for Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which has long maintained ties with the Haqqani network.

A statement by Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, applauded the Afghan security forces for preventing the truck full of explosives from entering the Green Zone, a reference to the area that houses the headquarters of the coalition forces as well as several foreign embassies.

“The attack demonstrates a complete disregard for civilians and reveals the barbaric nature of the enemy faced by the Afghan people,” the statement said.

Even before Wednesday, Afghans had been collectively holding their breath.

The year’s traumatic news began piling up even before the spring fighting season took off: massacres at a fortified army hospital and then an even more fortified army base, another district fallen to the Taliban as stretched security forces collapsed, a city overrun two times on verge of falling again, more civilians killed.

Security has steadily worsened since 2014 and the end of the main NATO combat mission, which at its peak featured more than 100,000 American troops and tens of thousands more from alliance partners like Britain. The current international force in Afghanistan numbers about 13,000 — about 8,400 of them are American — mostly tasked with training and advising the Afghan forces. The Trump administration and military commanders are debating whether to send up to 5,000 more troops to stem the government’s losses

In Germany, the blast was sure to fuel a fresh debate over the government’s efforts to repatriate Afghans whose applications for asylum had been rejected.

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Afghan municipal workers cleaning a road outside the German Embassy after the blast.CreditRahmat Gul/Associated Press

German officials have been at pains to insist that parts of Afghanistan are safe, despite the deteriorating security of the countryside. But hours after the blast, the government in Berlin said that a flight carrying deportees bound for Afghanistan scheduled for Wednesday had been postponed.

About 1,000 German soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO force, and Germany has invested billions in the military and aid to stabilize the country.

The sheer force of the blast on Wednesday was staggering, though it was not unprecedented. In 2015, a similar truck bombing in the Shah Shaheed neighborhood of the city also caused hundreds of casualties and left a strip of shops leveled and houses damaged in a wide radius. Other large truck bombings have targeted the offices of an elite force that provides security to senior government officials, as well as a compound for Western contractors.

Most of the victims appeared to be civilians on their way to work during the morning rush hour. Among those killed were a BBC driver, Mohammed Nazir, and an information technology worker for the Afghan television channel ToloNews, Aziz Navin.

Lotfullah Najafizada, the director of ToloNews, described a painful search for his colleague’s remains. He and his co-workers examined seven mostly unrecognizable bodies at the military hospital before heading over to the civilian side, where the 44th body had just arrived.

“We found Aziz in a large, dirt-colored sack, and his relatives were trying to transport him home,” Mr. Najafizada wrote on Facebook. “The ambulances were busy, and Aziz waited in the hall of the hospital for his final trip home.”

As such routines usually wrap up in Kabul, funeral processions made it to the different corners of the city. In the Karte Naw neighborhood, the body of Mr. Nazir was lifted from his modest two-story home, its outside walls freshly plastered, as women wailed inside. More than 500 people packed into the small yard of the orange mosque for a final prayer half a mile from his home, and then he was driven up the hill for his burial.

Mr. Nazir’s oldest son, Mohammed, 9, was accompanied by a weeping relative. Mohammed, wearing turquoise shorts, did not quite grasp what was happening.

In the northeast of the city, in the sprawling Panjsad family cemetery, Tawab Temuri, a 25-year-old travel agent, was the third victim to be buried on Wednesday.

A fourth grave was dug, and about 60 men waited just below Mr. Temuri’s grave for the body to arrive.

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