KABUL, Afghanistan – On the eve of a symbolic date for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a truck loaded with explosives exploded outside a guesthouse south of the capital Friday night, killing at least 27 people.
If the blast was the work of the Taliban – there was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the Afghan government quickly blamed the insurgents – that would be the most overt sign yet that the deal the Americans reached with the group in Doha in February 2020 was a halt. .
A secret supplement to that deal prevents the Taliban from launching suicide attacks, and it was in a steep decline until Friday. Instead, the Taliban have maneuvered over the past year to test the gray areas of the agreement, by carrying out assassinations targeting journalists, officials and intellectuals, for example.
There was a steady drumbeat of these; On Saturday morning, a professor at Kabul University was killed by a fatal bullet in Kabul. There was no complacency in the attacks on the Afghan security forces. Dozens of people have been killed in recent weeks.
But the Friday night attack in Logar County, which took a heavy toll, appeared to represent a deliberate shift in tactics. Officials said the truck driver blew himself up in an attack that also killed several students from rural areas who were staying at the facility before the university entrance exams. The guesthouse was owned by the family of a prominent Afghan senator, who himself was recently assassinated by the Taliban.
Dozens were buried under the rubble of the destroyed guesthouse in the provincial capital of Puli Alam, about 40 miles south of Kabul, and more than 100 others were injured.
The explosion occurred before the deadline agreed on on May 1 last year by the Taliban and US officials, which was aimed at ending the US military presence in Afghanistan for a period of 20 years.
The US canceled the May 1 date two weeks ago when President Biden extended his planned US withdrawal until September 11. The extension angered the Taliban, who have vowed there will be consequences if the United States does not fully comply with the February 2020 agreement.
The Taliban have always said that the US military presence after May 1 would violate the Doha Agreement, and have threatened to attack US forces in response.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter on Saturday that “this violation in principle opened the way” for the forces on his side “to take every countermeasure it deems appropriate against the occupation forces.”
The Taliban website did not refer to the explosion in Puli Alam on Saturday, and said only that “7 operatives were killed when Mujahideen raided an enemy position” there – “dolls” is the group’s preferred term for government forces.
It was not clear on Saturday whether the deadly blast, which occurred on Friday night, was in retaliation for Biden’s extension. American forces are already leaving the country, and American bases are being dismantled.
The Afghan government, which has been keen to portray the Taliban as insincere about the group’s deal with the Americans, wasted no time on Saturday in blaming the insurgent Islamist group.
“These people were preparing for the university entrance exam when the Taliban attacked them,” Hamadullah Moheb, the Afghan national security advisor, said on Saturday. For the Taliban, every Afghan is a target.
The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, held the Taliban “responsible for this mass killing of the Muslim people in Afghanistan,” which he said was “against God and against the people.”
The blast occurred just as Afghans were breaking their fast during their entire day in Ramadan. Officials said the truck driver appeared to stop at the guesthouse, claiming to bring supplies needed to break the fast.
As soon as he did, the truck exploded, knocking down its roof and destroying the building. Pictures posted on the “Tolo News” website showed rescuers searching the rubble in the dark for survivors.
In another sign of the stumbling of government resistance and the continuing Taliban march on Afghan cities, the insurgents swept into a military base on the outskirts of Ghazni, the provincial capital, on Friday night, and captured 25 soldiers.
Also on Saturday, in the south, at Kandahar airport, a sprawling facility where a small contingent of NATO and US forces was dismantling what was left of their base there, the Taliban on May 1 initiated a missile attack in the early afternoon.
A defense official said the US military immediately responded to the missile attack with an air strike on a Taliban position.
Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kandahar contributed, and Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost contributed.