With Elections Days Away, Suicide Bombs Sow Fear In Kabul

Taliban attacks have rocked some of Kabul's most guarded locations just days before Afghans vote in national elections, generating fear among foreigners and many Afghans connected to the vote.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Kabul is a city on edge as the Afghan presidential election approaches. Suicide bombers and gunmen attacked an election commission office yesterday. They killed several workers and police officers. In the April 5th election, eight men are now vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai. The field narrowed today after the grandson of the country's last king dropped out of the race. He was not expected to do well.

NPR's Sean Carberry joins us now from Kabul. And, Sean, you were covering yesterday's attack. Give us a rundown on what happened and the consequences.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Well, tactically, this was a typical so-called spectacular attack by the Taliban, which usually only involve a handful of militants but create a huge impact. In this case, two suicide bombs detonated outside the compound, and that created an opening for what we believe to be three gunmen to rush in, although there's some question about that number. But they went inside the compound and waged a three-hour shootout with dozens of Afghan police.

Police eventually killed the militants and freed some 70 Afghan workers in the election commission office. And this was a particularly brazen attack because it was in a block next to the presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani's house, a government ministry building and an army recruiting center. So there was a lot of security nearby. Taliban have warned that they would attack election officers and workers, and they've certainly been doing that over the last couple of months.

SIEGEL: Now, that was an attack on Afghans. Last week, gunmen killed nine people inside what was considered a very secure luxury hotel. One of the dead was a foreign election observer. Is the violence threatening the integrity of the elections?

CARBERRY: Well, in the wake of the attack on the Hotel Serena, two of the three international election monitoring organizations have pulled their people out of the country. Though, today, the U.S. ambassador and an Afghan election watchdog both said they don't think that will be a significant impediment to the legitimacy of the election. They say there are more qualified Afghan observers who will be on the ground, and there are more anti-fraud measures in place than the 2009 election. So they feel they won't be impacted by the withdrawal of the election observers.

In terms of security, Western diplomats and military officials have been saying they expected a serious increase in violence, and we're certainly seeing that. But they do argue Afghan forces are well organized and have solid planning in place to minimize the violence, but no one is denying that there will be significant violence on election day here.

SIEGEL: Well, how is the international community in general responding to the increased violence?

CARBERRY: Well, people are generally rattled by the attacks really going back to January, when 13 foreigners and eight Afghans were killed in a massacre at a restaurant in Kabul. And, again, while it was expected violence would spike in the weeks leading up to the vote, people didn't really expect the apparent intentional targeting of Westerners at the Serena, or the assassination of a Swedish journalist, Nils Horner, a couple of weeks ago. A number of NGOs have pulled some of their people out of the country, and those that are here are, frankly, more on edge than any time since I've been here.

SIEGEL: Sean, how is this affecting the Afghans themselves? Are there indications that, in light of this violence and intimidation, perhaps they might not vote?

CARBERRY: Afghans are generally defiant. They will not be deterred by security threats, they say. Most we've spoken to say they will go to vote in face of threats, though we talked to a few women and they seem much more hesitant to vote because of security concerns. Also, people universally say they have confidence that polling places in the urban centers will be safe, but rural areas will be more dangerous and some people in those areas probably will stay home.

They all agree that this is a critical election and Afghans should participate. But that said, they all express serious concerns about fraud and the legitimacy of the election. Fraud is heavily tied to security, and the less secure the area, the more likely there will be fraud. In a survey released today by an Afghan election watchdog found that only 25 percent of those polled are confident the elections will be free and fair, which is actually a significant drop from past elections.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Sean.

CARBERRY: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sean Carberry, speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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