8 Killed by Blast at Funeral for Afghan Warlord
A car bomb apparently targeting a provincial governor leaving a funeral killed eight people Monday as NATO took command of the first ground combat mission in the alliance’s 57-year history.
The bomb, which was hidden in a police car, exploded outside a mosque 12 miles south of Jalalabad after Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Sherzai left a memorial service for warlord Younis Khalis, police said.
“A car entered the mosque [compound] and it was full of land mines,” said police chief Basir Salangi. “This car was detonated by remote control.
“It appears that this bombing was planned for the governor because he left four minutes before the bomb exploded in the mosque,” the police chief added. Other important figures in the mosque might also have been targeted, Salangi said.
Thousands of people attended the services honoring Khalis, a militia leader who had declared a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. He died at age 87 last week.
Sherzai was not injured. But at least three civilians and five police officers were killed, and at least 13 people were injured, Salangi said.
Sherzai also survived an assassination attempt in early May.
A North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, headed by British Lt. Gen. David Richards, took command of military operations Monday in six southern provinces across Afghanistan, the country’s most dangerous turf.
“NATO is here for the long term, for as long as the government and people of Afghanistan require our assistance,” Richards said in a statement. “We are committed to Afghanistan and its future.”
Fighting has intensified across the region this year as NATO troops, mainly from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, fight Taliban and allied insurgents, as well as drug barons running a multibillion-dollar heroin trade.
This year, the British general complained that the Taliban and drug lords had gained extensive power in the south because there were too few “boots on the ground” under U.S. command. NATO plans to more than double the size of its force here to about 16,000 troops.
Although the Pentagon plans to withdraw several thousand troops from Afghanistan, U.S. commanders have emphasized that they will remain part of the force in the south, and will provide crucial air support to NATO troops.
U.S. troops are still in charge in eastern provinces along the border with Pakistan, including the area where Monday’s bomb attack occurred. NATO is due to take command of that region later in the year, but U.S. Special Forces will continue a separate hunt for Al Qaeda and allied insurgents.
The U.S. is one of 26 countries in the NATO alliance.
NATO established a force in Afghanistan in 2003, but its troops operated mainly in 13 relatively safe provinces in northern and western Afghanistan. The force, which includes contributions from non-NATO nations, has troops from 37 countries.
In the south, NATO troops face insurgents who have grown in strength and range over the last year, often using tactics such as suicide attacks and car bombs.
At least 94 foreign soldiers, two-thirds of them Americans, have died battling insurgents or in noncombat incidents this year. At least 1,700 Afghan civilians, soldiers and police have died.
The rising NATO casualties are straining public support for the alliance’s combat mission in the soldiers’ home countries. In a recent opinion poll, a slim majority of Canadians said their soldiers should be brought home as soon as possible.
NATO says it plans to make it safe for the Afghan government to expand its authority across the south, and for aid workers to carry out reconstruction work, which is considered essential to denying the insurgents fresh recruits.
“The enemy will fail here in southern Afghanistan, just as he will fail elsewhere in this country,” Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S.-led forces, said at a ceremony marking the transfer of authority to NATO.
“The war on terrorism began here in Afghanistan, and it continues today. We must never forget that,” Eikenberry said. “The United States will not leave Afghanistan until the Afghan people tell us the job is done.”