KABUL – A Taliban suicide bomber attacked officials leaving a mosque east of the capital Wednesday, killing the country’s deputy intelligence chief and 22 other people in a major blow to Afghanistan’s security forces.
The brazen assault occurred as tensions are running high after last month’s divisive presidential election and a sharp rise in U.S. casualties – events that have already raised alarm in Washington over the future of President Barack Obama’s strategy to turn the tide of the war.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which happened as Afghan dignitaries were leaving the main mosque in Mehtar Lam, 60 miles east of Kabul, after ceremonies marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The bomber approached the crowd on foot and detonated an explosive belt, killing 23 people, including Abdullah Laghmani, deputy chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security and the target of the attack, according to provincial spokesman Sayed Ahmad Safi.
The chairman of the local provincial council and the executive director of the local governor’s office also died in the blast, Safi said.
Laghmani, a close ally of President Hamid Karzai, was a major figure in Afghanistan’s security and intelligence apparatus and his death was a setback to Afghan efforts to curb Taliban and other extremist activity.
Laghmani formerly served as intelligence chief for Kandahar, the former Taliban spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan, and fought with a Tajik-dominated alliance that helped oust the Islamist movement from power during the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
In his most recent post, Laghmani directed intelligence operations especially in eastern Afghanistan and appointed local security officials throughout the area.
The attack occurred in a relatively safe city, serving as a deadly reminder that the militants are capable of striking even in areas where their influence is not strong.
U.S. troops cordoned off the blast site, filled with blood-spattered hulks of burned-out vehicles set on fire by the explosion. The local hospital was jammed with more than 50 wounded.