A bomb exploded on Saturday outside the provincial governor's office in the Afghan city of Kandahar, killing one policeman and wounding at least 14 civilians, officials said. The attack reflects deteriorating security in the largest city in the country's volatile south, also the Taliban's spiritual home, where NATO is preparing for a major operation seen as key to combating the insurgency. The governor was not in his office at the time.
The bombing also comes a day after a national peace conference in Kabul boosted President Hamid Karzai's plans to seek negotiations with the Taliban in a bid to end the nearly nine-year war. Kandahar city police Chief Sardar Mohammad Zazai said the explosives were strapped to a bicycle on the street outside the compound where the governor lives and works. The bomb detonated around midday.
The governor's spokesman, Zulmai Ayubi, said the 14 wounded included five children. Among the wounded, four were in critical condition, he said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, but Taliban militants are the most likely suspects. The hard-line Islamist movement, ousted from power in 2001 but now a formidable militant force, says it will keep fighting. Its leaders say no talks are possible until foreign troops withdraw from the country, a step Karzai cannot afford with the insurgency raging. US officials contend the Taliban leadership feels it has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war.
Karzai, who organized the conference that ended Friday, clearly got what he wanted from it: a mandate for his peace efforts and his government months after winning an election tainted by fraud. The three-day conference, or jirga, also represented the first major public debate in Afghanistan on how to end the war amid widespread belief here that the insurgency cannot be defeated militarily.
"The one significance of the jirga is that for the first time a collective and structured voice of Afghans for peace has been presented to the government and to the international community," said Nader Nadery, deputy chairman of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley praised the jirga as providing "a national consensus to pursue a political strategy to reduce the danger posed by the insurgency."
While active militant leaders were not invited to the jirga in Kabul, some former Taliban and their sympathizers came. Many stay in contact with Taliban foot soldiers, who till their farms by day and lay roadside bombs by night.
Nadery said it's these rank-and-file Taliban who could be pressed by their communities to embrace the peace process, particularly if backed by government incentives.
"It's significant for the Taliban to hear that Afghans from different walks of life ... are tired of war, are calling on them to at least talk peace," said Nadery. "The pressure from the communities won't be immediate but it could be the beginning." The jirga's final resolution says insurgents who want to take part must cut their ties with foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
Taliban leaders including Mullah Mohammed Omar harbored al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and other planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before a US-led invasion ousted them from power later that year.
The resolution calls for militants who join the peace process to be removed from a UN blacklist. The blacklist imposes travel and financial restrictions on some 137 people associated with the Taliban.
It also supports the release of Taliban prisoners in US and Afghan custody, and Karzai promised to make that a priority as a goodwill gesture to the militants.
In other violence, two British soldiers were killed in a gunbattle with insurgents Friday in southern Helmand province, the UK Ministry of Defense announced Saturday.
In the east, NATO aircraft pounded a target in Kunar province, killing nine Taliban militants including three Pakistanis, said provincial police chief Gen. Khalil Ziayi. And three insurgents were killed and four wounded in a gunbattle with Afghan forces in Ghazni province, farther south, said police chief Gen. Khail Baz Sherzai. As with many battle reports in far-flung regions of Afghanistan, it was not possible to independently confirm the casualty figures.