Afghan President Escapes Assassination Attempt

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai escaped unhurt Sunday from an assassination attempt for which the Taliban took responsibility. Three people were killed in the attack, which occurred at an official celebration in the nation's capital.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An attack yesterday on Afghanistan's president underscored how vulnerable he continues to be. Hamid Karzai has survived several assassination attempts, but none in the capital, Kabul. This one was at a military parade surrounded by diplomats and dignitaries and broadcast live on television.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the bold attack, which left three dead. Shortly after he was whisked away to safety, Karzai appeared again on national television to reassure the country and denounce the attackers as, quote, "The enemy of security and development in Afghanistan."

NPR's Afghanistan correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is following this story and joins us to talk about it.

Soraya, how did these attackers manage to strike in the heart of the Afghan capital?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, it appears that they rented a room in a local hotel which was maybe 500 meters - in other words, about 500 yards - away from the parade stand. And they had done that two days previously.

We don't know the number of attackers. What we're hearing is that three people were killed inside the room. But I also know that police were searching very thoroughly for any vehicles that were trying to leave the city on the day - or shortly after the attack, because it appeared that some people had gotten away, or at least they thought some people had gotten away.

MONTAGNE: Now, despite what Hamid Karzai said in the televised comments that he made, doesn't this attack highlight the fragile grip that his Western-backed government has on the country?

NELSON: Well, it certainly highlights their frustration. I mean, the comments that one heard shortly after the attack, while there was anxiety about the fact that they could get - that the attackers or the militants could get so close, there was also a lot of sort of like, well, who cares if he goes anyway?

And it was - they're very frustrated. The people here are very frustrated because the food prices are rising, fuel prices are rising. They don't see change happening fast enough in terms of development and reconstruction, and they feel that all this government - or his government has been doing is basically clamping down on the few outlets they have.

For example, there was quite a bit of brouhaha over India soap operas, which the Information and Culture Minister wants put off or banned from the air because of the fact that he considers them to be un-Islamic.

MONTAGNE: But, Soraya, the U.S. and other Western countries continue to back Karzai rather strongly.

NELSON: Yes, they do. And partly that's because he is seen, even now, as an honest broker, and the fact that he is - does enjoy some degree of popularity still among the people. And there's an election coming up next fall, and that's another reason that the West is backing him.

There are some names, however, that are emerging as possible competitors for President Karzai. One is the grandson of the late king, although his - I mean, he's very popular, but the problem is he's backed by former warlords. And that can create a problem here in this country.

There's also a popular former interior minister. And then last but not least is the name that's being bandied about, although he hasn't thrown his name in the ring, is the former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq - former U.S. ambassador - and his name is Zalmay Khalilzad. And, again, the question is does he really enjoy popular support here, and would he even consider running?

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking from Bamyan Province in Afghanistan.

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