Afghanistan’s election for a new president is less than two weeks away. That means the candidates are busy campaigning — and the Taliban are busy attacking.
The latest attack came Tuesday morning in Kabul when two suicide bombers detonated themselves outside one of the offices of the Independent Election Commission. Moments later, several gunmen ran inside and waged a three-hour gunbattle with dozens of Afghan police.
By the time we arrived at the scene, dozens, if not hundreds, of police had set up a perimeter around the area and had journalists cordoned off about half a mile from the election office. Elite police commandos and a handful of NATO Special Forces rushed to the scene and disappeared into the throngs of police and tactical vehicles.
The initial tally is three civilians and two police killed, and at least eight more wounded, but expectations are that the numbers could increase. Police eventually killed the attackers and freed some 70 staff from the building.
The election office sits near the home of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, and it was initially thought he was the target, though he was campaigning outside Kabul at the time. The Taliban cleared things up by issuing a statement claiming responsibility and stating that the election office was the intended target.
This is the latest in a string of high-profile attacks in Kabul.
Last week, four teenage gunmen smuggled pistols through several checkpoints at a highly secure five-star hotel in Kabul and shot diners in the restaurant. They killed a highly regarded Afghan journalist, his wife and two of his children. They also killed four foreigners, including an international election monitor staying at the hotel.
As a result of that attack, two out of the three international election monitoring organizations that were planning to observe the elections have pulled their people out of Afghanistan, raising further questions about the integrity of the April 5 vote for a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
There’s no clear-cut favorite in the race, and it’s quite likely that no candidate will get 50 percent of the vote, which will necessitate a runoff between the two top vote-getters. That would mean an extended campaign and the prospect of additional violence.
The Taliban have issued repeated warnings that they will attack election offices, workers and polling stations. They have warned Afghans that they are taking their lives into their hands should they choose to vote.
NATO and other Western officials say they expect continued attacks up until election day. A number of international aid organizations have been sending foreign staff out of the country until sometime after the vote.