KABUL, Afghanistan — In a further sign that the insurgents’ spring offensive is under way, suicide bombers struck in western and southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing 16 people, according to Afghan officials in Herat and Helmand, where the attacks took place.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf, claimed that Taliban fighters were responsible for the attack in Helmand, but even hours after the bombing in Herat said he had no information on it.
The target of the bombing in Herat initially appeared to be the government center in the Guzara district, which is on the edge of the city on the road to the airport. The suicide bomber drove a sport utility vehicle almost to the gates of the government center, which at 8:45 in the morning was crowded, but as policemen opened fire, he detonated a huge bomb. If he had come closer to the district center building the casualties would have been far higher, but even so 12 people died in the blast, among them at least 3 were policemen who were killed as they tried to stop the bomber, said Sayid Aqa Saqib, the provincial police chief.
Though in the past few years fighting has been more a year-round than seasonal affair, combat does pick up sharply in eastern Afghanistan and parts of the north as the deep snow begins to melt in the mountain passes and fighters and supplies can more easily enter the country. It is early, however, to gauge the strength of this spring offensive because much local support for the Taliban comes from farmers — and they are too busy to fight because they are tending their poppy crops. Afghan military commanders say they expect the ranks of fighters to swell once the poppy harvest is in, but they also expressed optimism about their ability to face them down.
“The Taliban will not miss any possible opportunity if they ever get it against the Afghan government,” Gen. Mohammed Salim Ahsas said. “But, we are becoming stronger and have the ability to halt their attempts.”
In Herat, for instance, there have been numerous attempts by suicide bombers to attack targets, but they have failed, said Ghulam Mohayuddin Noor, the provincial spokesman. He said that government officials believe that the real target on Tuesday was the provincial governor, who was scheduled to be traveling on that road to the airport.
A police intelligence unit was tracking the bombing vehicle’s movements and called for it to stop, but the driver ignored the instructions, said the provincial police chief, Sayid Aqa Saqib, adding that there appeared to have been two people in the vehicle.
“When we told them to stop, they sped up, and as they approached the entrance, the police started to fire on them and the bombers blew themselves up,” he said. “There were two suspects in the vehicle, one in male clothes and one in female clothes, but we cannot tell if it was really a woman.”
Herat is Afghanistan’s second most populous city and a place that has seen relatively little violence in recent years. Some of the attacks that do happen can be large-scale, however. Last May there were two suicide bombings, one of them attacking the NATO provincial reconstruction team on the outskirts of the city. In February, after the mistaken burning of Korans by American military personnel at Bagram Air Base, there was a demonstration in the city in which several people were killed and many others wounded when a police truck filled with bullets exploded.
In Helmand Province, where at least four police officers were killed in the Musa Qala district headquarters when the suicide bombers attacked, the bombing was an ominous sign that despite an enormous effort on the part of American and Afghan forces, the area was not entirely secure. Helmand is scheduled to have thousands of United States Marines pull out over the next eight months in order to meet the goal of reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan to pre-surge levels.
The attack on Musa Qala was the first in months since American Marines had painstakingly cleared the district of Taliban fighters. For several years, the Taliban had been so dominant in Musa Qala that they ran a parallel government, including a justice system and prisons. They allowed the growing of poppies, the precursor for opium, and there was a thriving narcotics bazaar when the Taliban were in control, said an elder in Musa Qala, who asked not to be named.
The target may well have been the district police chief, who has fought staunchly against the Taliban. He was critically wounded in the blast and was taken to a NATO base for treatment, said Daoud Ahmadi, the provincial governor’s spokesman.