A suicide bomber killed the deputy governor of strategic Kandahar province Saturday, raising fears that insurgents were reigniting an assassination campaign against public servants that terrorized the south's main urban hub for much of last year.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed Abdul Latif Ashna and injured three of his bodyguards as he was driving to work in Kandahar city. It was the highest-profile strike of its kind in months.
A wave of political assassinations in and around Kandahar crested in the spring and summer of 2010: The city's deputy mayor was killed in April as he prayed at a mosque, and his successor was assassinated six months later.
But the killings had subsided in recent months as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Afghan forces consolidated their grip on several key districts surrounding the city.
Western military officials hope that improving security in the province, the traditional heartland of the Taliban, will pave the way for better governance and public services, and in turn help build backing for the beleaguered administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai while sapping support for the insurgency. But the Taliban's killing of public officials, tribal elders and other influential figures undermines that goal.
Karzai condemned Saturday's attack, as did U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the NATO force. Eikenberry, offering condolences while on a visit to the province, called it a "vicious assassination" and a setback to efforts to stabilize Kandahar.
American military officials say their operations in Kandahar are pivotal to the overall war effort, now in its 10th year. Much of last year's troop buildup, which brought U.S. forces in the country to 100,000, was centered in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province.
Last year was the deadliest of the war to date for U.S. and other Western troops, with the surge in casualties attributed to grappling with the Taliban movement on its home turf.
Senior Western commanders have acknowledged that it will not be known until spring whether U.S.-led forces will be able to consolidate what they described as significant and hard-fought military gains in three districts surrounding Kandahar city.
In the winter months, Taliban fighters usually rest and regroup across the border in Pakistan, but U.S. commanders say the insurgency has been considerably weakened by targeted strikes, which have decimated the movement's midlevel field command.
Even so, the Taliban last year made inroads into some previously calm areas of the country, and the movement's leaders have rebuffed efforts to bring them to the bargaining table.
The NATO force said two of its service members were killed Saturday in an explosion in the south, but did not disclose their nationalities, nor specify the province where the deaths occurred.