Karzai on the Bombing: "The Enemy Is Not Eliminated"

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Moments after a suicide car-bomb blast, in Kabul, September 8, 2006.

The ferocity of the battle for control of Afghanistan, which has raged across the south of the country for weeks, was felt Friday in the capital. A massive suicide car-bombing in Kabul killed two Americans and at least 16 Afghans, and rocked the floor of the presidential palace a mile away, where President Karzai was sitting down for an interview with TIME.

Windows rattled across the city Friday morning as a suicide car-bomber rammed a U.S. convoy patrolling near the U.S. embassy in the city center. It was the second suicide attack in a week, following on Monday's bombing near the airport that killed five people. And it came at the end of a week of fierce clashes in the south; the strength of Taliban resistance has surprised NATO commanders, who on Thursday called on member states to send a further 2,000 troops to reinforce its counterinsurgency mission in the Taliban's heartland.

President Karzai, struggling to maintain his composure in the minutes following the blast, condemned the attack and lamented the loss of life, but adamantly rejected any suggestion that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating.

"Look, we have enemies," Karzai said. "The same enemies that blew up themselves in London, the same enemies that blew up the train in Madrid or the train in Bombay or the twin towers in America are still around. Before September 11 they were the government in Afghanistan. Today they are on the run and hiding and they come out from their hiding and try to hurt us when they can manage it."

Hurt Afghans they certainly did. Witnesses at the blast site described a mangled Humvee, a bomb crater about four feet deep, scattered body parts, and most chillingly, a bra tangled in tree branches above the vehicle, where it was hurled by the strength of the explosion. Although coalition forces were the immediate target, the size and range of the blast at a busy intersection suggests that the civilian casualties were intentional. Massoud Circle, where the attack occurred, is located near an apartment complex housing thousands of families, where many windows were shattered.

If Karzai's enemies are, indeed, on the run, events over the past week suggest they are far from being defeated. Besides the two suicide attacks in the capital and insurgent attacks scattered throughout the south and west, Taliban forces have mounted a surprisingly strong resistance to an ongoing NATO operation near Kandahar in which both sides have suffered substantial casualties. The bombings in the capital "looks to be the insurgents lashing out against us for the pressure we are putting on them in the south," says Luke Knittig, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. "Conventional warfare is taking its toll down there, and they know the importance of the capital."

With NATO still finding its feet just a month after taking control of the south from U.S. forces, the Taliban appears determined to do its utmost to test the appetite of the Western alliance for a sustained and messy counterinsurgency campaign. But Knittig insists that the alliance will not be swayed. "NATO has signed on the line for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan."

The Alliance will need to sustain that outlook if plans for rebuilding a viable Afghan society free of the Taliban are to be realized. "We will have [attacks of this kind] for a long time," warns Karzai. "The enemy is defeated, but it is not eliminated. The elimination part is what we should continue to work on. And that needs patience. That needs perseverance and that needs hard work."