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Bombing Heightens Security Woes Before Afghan Election

August 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated today after a suicide attack in Kabul killed at least eight people and injured 55 more. Earlier, the presidential palace was damaged in a round of mortar attacks.

John Ray of Independent Television News begins our lead story coverage.

JOHN RAY: No matter how often it happens, it never becomes routine. Kabul today, and a thick plume of smoke rises on the skyline. A suicide bomb — huge in size, packed in a car — detonated as a coalition convoy passed by.

The walking wounded were led away, but amid the wreckage many dead and badly injured. The casualties include NATO soldiers, but from which nation has not yet been revealed.

The Taliban claimed responsibility. Their message, that they can pick and choose their targets at will.

This attack happened within a mile or so of the main British base here. There was considerable confusion and no little panic at the scene, not least because police believe there may be as many as three more suicide bombers on the loose.

The grim task of recovering bodies, such was the force of the blast that some were blown onto rooftops, and we found this razor-sharp slice of metal 100 meters from the scene.

The police chief told us foreign troops were the target, but as so often, the killers netted more of their own countrymen. Today’s attack took place on the Jalalabad Road, the main military supply route in and out of Afghanistan. It comes as the Taliban intensify their attacks on the capital and follows Saturday’s bombing of NATO’s headquarters.

HUMAYUM HAMIDZADI, presidential spokesman: The people of Afghanistan will not let this opportunity to decide their future leadership go from them, and they will not allow the terrorists to derail them.

JOHN RAY: As British troops secured the scene, coalition commanders said nothing would weaken their resolve. But two days from the election, few places feel truly safe.

GWEN IFILL: The violence was not limited to Kabul. The U.S. military reported two American troops were killed and three wounded in a roadside bombing in the eastern part of the country. Twenty-six American troops have been killed so far this month.

NATO announced its forces will not launch any counteroffensive on Election Day, and the Afghan government has asked news organizations to refrain from reporting on any Election Day violence.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News traveled to the district of Nad Ali in Helmand province to file this report on efforts to secure the vote.

Keeping voters safe

Mark Sedwill
British ambassador to Afghanistan
We need to ensure that the government has that capability to deliver the services that people want, particularly justice, security and then gradually other services, as well, education for their kids, a clinic, economic activity.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Coming in to land in what the British call a liberated area. This is the second phase of Operation Panther's Claw, hold and build.

The British ambassador has come with the Helmand province deputy governor to encourage the people to vote, despite Taliban threats.

Bombed-out houses, an old Soviet tank, testament to three decades of war between Afghan tribes and factions backed by sundry foreign governments and groups.

We head for the bazaar in the village. Somewhat to the annoyance of his bodyguards, the ambassador has abandoned his flak jacket to show how safe it is.

People have only just returned to the village after fleeing the fighting. They're wary. They tell the visitors that the British have bombed their houses.

MARK SEDWILL, British ambassador, Afghanistan: It's perfectly natural that people want to see what the government can do for them compared to what the insurgency offers. We need to ensure that the government has that capability to deliver the services that people want, particularly justice, security and then gradually other services, as well, education for their kids, a clinic, economic activity.v

LINDSEY HILSUM: The elders and heads of families have been called to a shura, a community meeting. This is all about reassuring the people that the government's in charge, backed by the military muscle of the British.

But the Taliban are never far away. I can hear the helicopter, the military helicopter overhead all the time, because the British military know that the Taliban knows exactly where this meeting with all these important people is being held.

COL. GREVILLE BIBBY, deputy commander, Task Force Helmand: My soldiers and I have been sent her by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, all the way from Great Britain to help you against your fight against the Taliban. These brave men have laid their lives down for you and to bring peace and security to your beautiful country.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The deputy governor tells the people that they should vote in this week's election and that the government will bring development. Some of these men probably are Taliban or have brothers in the Taliban. They're not easy to convince.

AFGHAN MAN (through translator): We wanted the shura to focus on the problems which forced us to leave our homes. The Taliban came and started shooting, and international forces dropped bombs, so we had to flee. How does this shura help us? It doesn't heal our wounds, and no one listens to us. We want them to start a really big war to clear this whole area or else just leave us with the Taliban and don't destroy anything else.

AFGHAN MAN (through translator): With a situation like this, even if you brought a picture of my own father, I wouldn't vote for him. What's the point? I'm not going to vote.

HAJJI ABDUL SATTAR, deputy governor, Helmand (through translator): Through the meeting, by speaking to the elders, we found out that the people are very interested in voting in the election. Of course the Taliban is a threat to the poll, but we won't give them a chance to dguristurb it.

LINDSEY HILSUM: These men, the Afghan police, are meant to guard the polling stations and voters. We watched the Gurkhas train them. They're meant to ensure law and order after the election, but most are illiterate. They don't have basic skills. Some bravely guard posts in remote areas, but on occasion, the British have provided training only to find out that the police are on the Taliban's side.

British troops have to be vigilant, even in supposedly secure areas. Not everyone wants the development they say they're here to bring. They always have to check for roadside bombs, the deadly weapon responsible for most of the soldiers' deaths in Helmand.

COL. GREVILLE BIBBY: We live in a very dangerous and very volatile world. And part of the equation is the Taliban, is the terrorist threat, and that exists here, and so we are here trying to get rid of that threat. It's all part of the bigger picture.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Is it doable? Is it winnable?

COL. GREVILLE BIBBY: Do you know, I think it is winnable. It's not going to happen overnight, and everyone recognizes that. But we've got to believe that it's doable, because there would be no point in being here if we didn't.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Under the old Soviet tank, there's hay to be gathered. In Afghanistan, they've seen rule by communists and kings, warlords and jihadis.

The British say they're here for the long term. But today, the ambassador and the colonel are off in the helicopter leaving behind them a small unit and a promise that it will be different this time.

GWEN IFILL: Across the border in Pakistan today, security forces captured the top spokesman for the Taliban there. He reportedly told officials his group's leader was killed in a U.S. missile attack earlier this month. Baitullah Mehsud was accused of plotting a series of suicide attacks inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.