KABUL, Afghanistan – On the eve of a symbolic date for the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, a truck loaded with explosives exploded outside a guesthouse south of the capital on Friday evening, killing at least 27 people .
If the explosion were the work of the Taliban – there was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the Afghan government quickly blamed the insurgents – it would be the most obvious signal to date that the deal reached. by the Americans with the group in Doha in February 2020 is disabled.
A secret annex to the deal prevents the Taliban from carrying out suicide bombings, and it has seen a sharp decline until Friday. Instead, the Taliban have maneuvered over the past year to test the gray areas of the deal, for example by carrying out targeted assassinations of journalists, officials and intellectuals.
There has been a constant rhythm of these; Saturday morning, a professor at Kabul University was shot and killed in Kabul. And the attacks on the Afghan security forces have not stopped; dozens have been killed in recent weeks.
But Friday night’s attack in Logar province, with its heavy toll, appeared to represent a deliberate change in tactics. The driver of the truck blew himself up in an attack that also killed many students from rural areas who were staying at the facility before college entrance exams, officials said. The guesthouse was owned by the family of a prominent member of the Afghan Senate, himself recently assassinated by the Taliban.
Dozens of people were buried under the rubble of the destroyed guesthouse in the provincial capital of Pul-e Alam, about 40 miles south of Kabul, and more than 100 others were injured.
The explosion came just ahead of the May 1 deadline agreed to last year by the Taliban and US officials, which aimed to end the 20-year US military presence in Afghanistan.
The United States canceled the May 1 date two weeks ago when President Biden extended the planned U.S. withdrawal until September 11. The extension angered the Taliban, who swore there would be consequences if the United States did not fully comply with the February 2020 agreement.
The Taliban have often said that a US military presence after May 1 would violate the Doha agreement and threatened to attack US forces in response.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter on Saturday that “this breach of principle has paved the way” for the forces of his camp “to take whatever countermeasures they deem appropriate against the forces of occupation”.
The Taliban website made no mention of the Pul-e Alam explosion on Saturday, simply saying that “7 puppets were killed when mujahedin attacked an enemy post” there – “puppets” being the term. Preferred of the group to designate government troops.
It is unclear on Saturday whether Friday night’s deadly explosion was retaliation against Mr Biden’s extension. US troops have already started to leave the country and US bases are being dismantled.
The Afghan government, still keen to portray the Taliban as unfaithful to the group’s deal with the Americans, was quick to blame the Islamist insurgent group on Saturday.
“These people were preparing for the university entrance exam when the Taliban attacked them,” Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, said on Saturday. “For the Taliban, every Afghan is a target.”
The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, held the Taliban “responsible for this massive massacre of the Muslim people of Afghanistan”, which he said was “against God and against the people”.
The explosion came as Afghans were breaking their one-day Ramadan fast. The truck driver apparently stopped at the guesthouse, officials said, claiming to bring supplies for breaking the fast.
Just as he did, the truck exploded, knocking down the roof and destroying the building. Photographs on the Tolo News website showed rescuers searching for survivors in the rubble in the dark.
In another sign of hesitant government resistance and the Taliban’s constant encroachment on Afghan towns, insurgents stormed a military base on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Ghazni on Friday evening, capturing 25 soldiers.
Also on Saturday, in the south, at Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling facility where a small contingent of NATO and US forces were dismantling what was left of their base there, the Taliban on May 1 launched an attack on arugula in the early afternoon.
The US military immediately responded to the rocket attack with an airstrike on a Taliban position, a defense official said.
Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed from Kandahar, and Farooq Jan Mangal contributed from Khost.