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Bombing Kills Key Afghan Intelligence Official as Election Tensions Linger

BY Dave Gustafson   September 2, 2009 at 1:02 PM EST

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah on Tuesday; Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

With violence rising in Afghanistan over the past three years, the country has also remained in political limbo since elections on Aug. 20.

The suicide bombing struck during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and at the heart of Afghanistan’s intelligence service. It also underscored the Taliban’s increasing ability to execute complex and targeted assaults. President Hamid Karzai and the United Nations condemned the attack.

Lutfullah Mashal, the governor of Laghman province, said the bomber ran out of a shop and blew himself up while officials were getting into cars outside the mosque, Reuters reported. Mashal escaped injury in the attack.

The dead included two provincial officials plus Abdullah Laghmani, deputy head of the National Directorate for Security. Laghmani was one of the highest-ranking security officials in Karzai’s government to be assassinated. Another 36 people were wounded.

“It is obviously the work of the Taliban who are trying to destabilize Afghanistan by trampling Islamic values,” Mashal said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Islamist group had sent a suicide bomber to attempt to kill Laghmani.

“Laghmani was one of the most important targets for the Taliban that we successfully eliminated,” Mujahid told Reuters by telephone.

A witness in the mountain town about 60 miles east of Kabul saw a pickup truck carrying wounded people covered in blood, according to Reuters. Eight ambulances left the scene headed toward Jalalabad, the nearest major city.

Laghmani was the former intelligence chief in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. He was an ethnic Pashtun, same as nearly all the Taliban, but he fought alongside a Tajik-led faction during the war against the Taliban that preceded the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

His death occurred as tensions are rising in the wake of the divisive Aug. 20 presidential election. With about half the results in, Karzai, a Pashtun, leads Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik but is seen as a Tajik candidate.

International officials initially hailed the election because the Taliban mostly failed to disrupt it, but those assessments have become more guarded as fraud charges have mounted. The head of the Electoral Complaints Commission, a fraud watchdog with the power to set aside suspicious ballots, said it was investigating 2,654 complaints of abuse, including more than 652 it considers serious enough to alter the outcome.

An official with Abdullah’s campaign warned that supporters of the former foreign minister would take to the streets if there was any perception that election fraud was overlooked. Hundreds of serious allegations of fraud have been formally lodged since voting day, mostly involving ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation.

“We are not talking too much because people are very angry and we don’t want to add to that, but Dr. Abdullah is meeting with foreign embassies and regional partners to try to find a solution,” said Zalmai Younosi, Abdullah’s campaign chief in six northern provinces, as quoted by the Associated Press.

“After that, if there is no result, then it is protest and violence,” he warned. “Yes, violence is bad for the country … When Russia occupied Afghanistan, we had to fight. When the Taliban came we had to fight back. How can we accept a corrupt government funded by drugs and not respected by the world? We have to defend our own rights.”

The poll was a major test for incumbent Karzai after eight years in power as well as for President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban.

Earlier this week, the commander of the 103,000-strong U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan said the situation was serious and deteriorating and existing military strategy must be changed. Meanwhile in Paris, European and U.S. envoys are meeting to discuss a new strategy in Afghanistan.

NATO’s secretary-general said Wednesday the alliance will remain committed to Afghanistan and must step up its effort there regardless of the election’s outcome. Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghans must judge whether the elections could be considered credible.

“Obviously we need a legitimate government in Afghanistan. I really hope the elections and the whole election process will be considered credible by the Afghan people,” he told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.