By Joshua Partlow and Kevin Sieff | World | Wall Street Journal with Foreign Policy | July 14, 2011
For the distinguished guests clustered on the side of the vast carpeted prayer hall — including Kandahar’s governor and four of Karzai’s brothers — a meal was ready across town at Mandigak palace, where the provincial council meets, the cleric said.
As the guests stood to leave, a bomb hidden inside a man’s turban detonated, killing at least four people and wounding 15 others, according to Afghan officials and witnesses.
The attack defied stringent security measures that were put in place after Ahmed Wali Karzai was shot dead at his home by a trusted confidant on Tuesday. By penetrating the high-profile event, the killer proved again the vulnerability of Afghan officials as the United States works to transfer security responsibilities to the Afghans, and demonstrated the intensity of the campaign to take out Karzai government loyalists.
None of the Karzai family members died in Thursday’s blast, but that was due to chance more than anything else.
“It was a very, very, very close call,” said Mahmood Karzai, one of the president’s brothers, who estimated he was about 20 feet from the bomber. “The guy didn’t recognize us. It was a miracle we got out of there alive.”
Other witnesses said there was a somewhat greater distance between the bomber and the area where the Karzai family and other high-level dignitaries were seated — perhaps 40 yards.
When the bomb went off, “everyone was quiet for a second,” said Gul Mohammad, 40, a driver who attended the service. “Then everyone panicked.”
Guests quickly formed a circle around the Karzai family and hustled them from the mosque unharmed, witnesses said, while the dead and injured lay bleeding and burned in the smoky room.
Among the dead was the chief cleric of Kandahar, Mawlavi Hekmatullah, officials said. All of the cabinet ministers and senior officials who had traveled from Kabul for the event survived.
Mahmood Karzai laid the blame for the attack on Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders reside. “How long are we going to pretend, Afghans and Americans? Why is there so much patience with Pakistan? Are they so powerful?”
President Karzai, who attended his half brother’s funeral on Wednesday but was not at the memorial service, said the bombing “was entirely an act contrary to Islam and humanity, which has no justification in any religion or sect.”
The Taliban’s reach in carrying out attacks was also highlighted Thursday by a United Nations report showing that civilian deaths in Afghanistan increased by 15 percent in the first six months of 2011 over the same period last year, even as attacks on NATO and Afghan forces began to decline.
The bulk of the 1,462 deaths during the period were caused by land-mine-like improvised explosive devices planted by the Taliban, according to the U.N. report. May and June were the two deadliest months for civilians since the organization began keeping count in 2007.
“Afghan children, women and men continue to be killed at an alarming rate,” said Staffan de Mistura, special representative for the secretary general.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, said last week that the number of insurgent attacks on NATO and Afghan forces declined in May and June by “a few percent,” compared with the same months in 2010.
The disparity between the NATO and U.N. data — attacks on military personnel declining while civilian deaths spike — gets at the challenge of gauging the success of the American-led effort in Afghanistan. Even if the Taliban’s capacity to wage war on coalition forces is waning, that says little about the group’s ability to terrorize local populations, officials said.
The increasingly deadly roadside bombs “are meant to hit tanks, but they’re triggered mostly by minibuses, cars or civilians walking,” de Mistura said Thursday.
U.N. officials recognized recent NATO efforts to avoid civilian casualties, pointing to the decrease in the total number of civilians killed by the coalition. At the same time, the number killed specifically by NATO airstrikes, which are hugely controversial in Afghanistan, spiked 14 percent.
The report places most responsibility for civilian casualties on the Taliban, which it says was responsible for about 80 percent of the civilian deaths.
“More than a report, this is an appeal,” de Mistura said. He said that the report’s authors had contacted Taliban representatives, who disputed the U.N.’s claims.
Special correspondents Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Javed Hamdard in Kandahar contributed to this report.