Suicide blast leaves 35 dead at Afghan Army recruiting center
Petraeus begins a week in D.C.
KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber posing as an army volunteer blew himself up outside a military recruiting center in northern Afghanistan yesterday, killing at least 35 people and escalating the insurgent campaign to scare young Afghans away from military service.
It was the second deadly attack on the center in three months.
The young men lined up for service were among many Afghans eager for a steady paycheck despite the danger from militants targeting security forces, recruiting centers, and government officials.
Four children were among the dead and at least 42 people were wounded, said Muhbobullah Sayedi and Hamdullah Danishi, provincial officials.
A unemployment rate of 35 percent and an average military salary of $170 a month is enough to persuade volunteers, when the average Afghan wage is about $60 to $100 a month.
Yesterday’s attack was the second suicide bombing in five days in Kunduz, where Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and numerous other militant groups, including one from neighboring Uzbekistan, have increased their presence. Violence in recent months has shifted away from Afghanistan’s south, where the US-led coalition has poured thousands more troops.
Fatima Aziz, a parliamentarian for Kunduz, said the attacks are intended to expose the weakness of the Afghan forces and to dissuade potential army volunteers. US General David Petraeus, the top commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has said thousands more Afghan troops must be recruited and trained ahead of the eventual withdrawal of NATO troops.
The United States and Afghanistan began negotiations yesterday over long-term security arrangements expected to guide international cooperation after 2014, when most coalition combat troops are scheduled to leave, said a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai.
The attacker walked up to the center before detonating his explosives vest, Danish said. No group immediately claimed responsibility; the Taliban said it carried out the bombing against the center in December, which killed eight soldiers and policemen.
Karzai condemned the bombing and vowed retribution against those responsible.
In his first appearance in Washington since taking over as the top war commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus yesterday gave President Obama a mostly upbeat assessment of military progress that should allow the United States to begin withdrawing forces this summer, despite predictions that the wounded Taliban insurgency will mount an especially bloody fight this spring.
No one is calling it the Taliban’s last stand, but US officials say this is the year that the insurgency will be tamed on the battlefield and at the bargaining table.
Petraeus met privately with Obama yesterday, the start of a full week of testimony and other events. Petraeus was last in the Oval Office in June, when Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal and turned to Petraeus as an emergency replacement.
The general’s optimism comes with caveats, but it still marks a significant turn from worries a year ago about the strength and durability of the Taliban-led insurgency as the first of Obama’s 30,000 additional troops worked to take and hold Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
Kunduz and surrounding provinces are known hide-outs for the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and fighters from militant factions that include the Haqqani network, Hizb-i-Islami, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The province is also a major agricultural and transit center along a main highway used by NATO supply convoys.
In Kandahar province, another Taliban stronghold, a well-known insurgent fighter agreed to lay down his weapons along with 20 other militants. Azizullah Agha said too many foreigners had joined the insurgency and he did not like that they were burning schools. He spoke at a press conference at the Afghan intelligence agency in Kandahar city.
Petraeus will testify to Congress today and tomorrow. He probably will repeat his claim that the troop surge has worked to oust the Taliban from strongholds, particularly in the south, and begin to sketch out how the gradual US troop withdrawal can take place, with Afghan troops taking control in more stable locales as US forces shift to still precarious regions.
A topic of continued debate will be the militants’ safe havens along the mountainous Pakistan border, and Pakistan’s reluctance to move into insurgent strongholds in North Waziristan, where senior Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden are rumored to be hiding.
Petraeus, 58, is expected to leave the Afghanistan job late this year, either to assume another top military post off the battlefield or to retire from the Army.