KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bombing that killed the mayor of Afghanistan’s second-largest city Wednesday is the latest in a rash of high-level assassinations that have cast doubts over whether security gains in the Taliban’s southern heartland will survive the drawdown of U.S. “surge” troops.
Kandahar Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who was a U.S. citizen, died in his heavily guarded compound when a man detonated explosives hidden in his turban as Hamidi accepted petitions from tribal elders, officials said. At least one other person died, in addition to the bomber.
The assassination came just 15 days after the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, who was Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, was murdered by his chief bodyguard.
“I was inside my office when I heard the explosion,” Mohammad Afzal, a senior official who was working in another part of the compound, said in a telephone interview. “I later heard that the man had a petition in his hand and came close to the mayor, crashed his head into the mayor and set off the explosion.”
A Taliban spokesman called news media to claim responsibility for killing Hamidi, 65, who was close to Karzai’s family and for more than five years had been the mayor of Kandahar city, the cultural and spiritual capital of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban. He’d survived an ambush last year.
The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, condemned Hamidi’s slaying “in the strongest possible terms.”
“Clearly a string of assassinations is not a good sign … but at the same time, this could be a sign of significant weakness on the part of an enemy who has had a pretty darn hard year,” Crocker told reporters at his first briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
“I don’t think you can chart a straight line that says that three assassinations guarantees a total unraveling either of international support or Afghan confidence. It could very well go the other way.”