MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. Take us through today's events, first of all, beginning with the bombings in Kabul. How did they unfold?
JOHN BURNS: At the height of the shopping day, at about three o’clock this afternoon, a small bomb exploded very close to the center of the city, apparently hidden in a box on the back of a bicycle.
Three minutes later, when the crowd had gathered, a much larger bomb, a very large bomb, hidden in what appears to have been a taxi, exploded and killed at least 15 people; and according to Kabul Television tonight, perhaps as many as 25 or 26 people, and injured, I think it's probably safe to say, scores of others, many of them critically. It was by far the worst attack of its kind in Kabul, and indeed in any city in Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban last November.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And then the assassination attempt in Kandahar. Tell us what happened there, as best you've been able to reconstruct it.
JOHN BURNS: President Karzai, who, as you know, is the head of the American-backed government that has succeeded the Taliban here, left the governor's mansion in Kandahar, where he had flown in a U.S. military plane earlier in the day to attend the wedding of his youngest brother, to go to a shrine, one of the holiest Islamic shrines in the country. He was in a black Mercedes Benz car driven by a U.S. Special Forces close protection soldier with another U.S. Special Forces soldier in the passenger... the front passenger seat.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened, but probably the most reliable one comes from a BBC reporter who was present.
He says that President Karzai in a passage through a crowd, leaned out of the window to greet a young boy, and at that point, a uniformed man leapt through the window and opened fire, firing at least twice, some reports say four times, missing President Karzai by inches, but hitting the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai, who was wounded in the head or the neck. He was taken to the U.S. military airport and treated and appears not to be in serious condition.
The attacker was killed by fire from U.S. Special Forces, along with two other men, and it appears that yet a fourth person, an Afghan security guard assigned to President Karzai's detail, was also killed.
MARGARET WARNER: There are reports here that the gunman was dressed in what was described as an Afghan army uniform. Have you been able to confirm that, and what does that tell you?
JOHN BURNS: All accounts indicate that that's true, and it would have been easy to determine because he was dead at the site. And several reporters saw the body. I'm not sure what it means. It could, of course, mean that he was a dissident within the forces of Gul Agha Sherzai, the warlord in Kandahar who was accompanying President Karzai. It could, in that sense, be a local matter.
On the other hand, these uniforms are very easy to get, and if the attacker were, as the Afghan government has been saying tonight, linked to al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated terrorist groups, of course it wouldn't have been at all hard for an assassin to acquire a military uniform.
MARGARET WARNER: What have you been able to determine about who was behind this attack and the bombings, and do you think they're connected?
JOHN BURNS: There's no hard evidence on any of this, but deductively you'd have to say that this is definitely linked to the war on terrorism. Why? First of all, the nature of the incidence and of the target; on the one hand, an attempt to kill the American-backed president of Afghanistan, and on the other, an attack in the heart of the capital city in an area that's overlooked by three government ministries.
The second point of evidence to consider is that these attacks took place on the 5th of September, less than a week before the anniversary of September 11. There have been reports that al-Qaida, in messages delivered in the name of Osama bin Laden in the Middle East within the past ten days, has warned of attacks related to the September 11 anniversary.
There was a more specific warning from an Afghan warlord by the name of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is a kind of hangover from the anti-Soviet guerrilla war, who has reentered Afghanistan from Iran within the past few months, declared himself to be an ally of Taliban... the remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida. He has strengths southeast of Afghanistan, and has been attempting to revive his networks there, and made a specific warning earlier this week that he intended to launch a new Jihad, or Holy War, against the United States, and that there would be attacks.
So, no surprise, then, that the Afghanistan foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, at a news conference tonight, after the assassination attempt on President Karzai, that the prime suspects were, as he put it, al-Qaida, groups associated to al-Qaida remnants of the Taliban, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
MARGARET WARNER: From your reporting, do you believe or do you think that the al-Qaida and Taliban remnants who are still in the country have enough support, are organized enough to be able to pull off a couple of attacks like this, coordinated attacks like this?
JOHN BURNS: I guess the most disturbing feature of all of this, what we saw today was two serious incidents in the heart of two of the largest cities in the country. This, by the way, does not come as a surprise to the government of Afghanistan, nor to U.S. Central Command, which is conducting the war against terrorism here. They have said all along that there are significant elements of al-Qaida and the Taliban still at large, and to mount these attacks, to mount them in a coordinated way of this kind, isn't logistically that complicated.
You can imagine the security in this country after 23 years of war is still pretty shaky. There's no real control on vehicles entering these cities. Nobody really knows who lives in these cities. And to give you just one instance Kabul, which has a population-- and it's only an estimate – of probably two million people -- 600,000 of those people are new entrance people, mainly refugees returning from Pakistan who arrived in the city this year. So nobody really knows who's in this city. As you know, the country's awash with guns, and an incidence of this kind, it's always been likely to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: And President Karzai, where is he now?
JOHN BURNS: He has stayed on in Kandahar tonight. He's a man who is growing rapidly in the estimation, I believe, of his own people. He is politically weak, but personally strong. He's chosen to remain in Kandahar for his brother's wedding, where he was reported about an hour or two ago to be in the governor's mansion.
He has spoken to the BBC and described himself as being a bit unshaken, quite calm, and from the remarks that were quoted on the BBC, very clear- headed about this. He said these events were always to be expected, that he himself had expected this kind of attack on himself, and that there would probably be more attacks of this kind, but the war on terrorism will ultimately prevail.
MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, thank you so much.