KABUL, Afghanistan – Two deadly suicide bombings minutes apart Saturday marred Chuck Hagel’s maiden visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary and served as a jarring reminder of the problems still facing the U.S. as it seeks to disengage from the 11-year-old war.
A bicyclist detonated explosives strapped to his body about 30 yards from a main entrance of the Defense Ministry in Kabul about 8:45 a.m., mowing down Afghans who were waiting in line to enter the compound, U.S. officials said.
The bomb killed at least nine civilians and wounded 14 people, including two Afghan army soldiers, the Defense Ministry said in a statement, making it one of the deadliest attacks in the capital in months.
Hagel was getting a briefing at a U.S. facility half a mile away when the blast occurred. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“I wasn’t sure what it was,” Hagel later told reporters. “But we’re in a war zone. I’ve been in war. It shouldn’t be a surprise when bombs go off.”
Less than an hour later, a suicide bomber on foot tried to pass through a police checkpoint in the eastern province of Khowst, killing eight children and a police officer in the provincial capital of the same name, the deputy police chief said.
The provincial police official, Mohammad Yaqub Mandozai, said the bombing took place while police officers at the checkpoint were searching cars. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
U.S. officials had hoped Hagel’s visit would highlight what they say has been progress in turning over security responsibility to the Afghan army and police before the planned pullout of most American troops next year. But the two attacks, at a time when security measures in the Afghan capital were heightened for Hagel’s visit, only deepened questions about the government’s ability to stem the insurgency as the U.S. and its allies leave.
Separately, a ceremony to mark the formal transfer of a controversial U.S. detention facility to Afghan control was abruptly canceled because of a dispute over whether President Hamid Karzai’s government would continue to hold without charges some prisoners whom the U.S. doesn’t want released. Afghan officials said the ceremony would take place this week.
Disagreements between Karzai’s government and the U.S. have multiplied in recent weeks as attempts have been made to work out the terms of their changing relationship.
The Taliban said the Kabul attack was intended to show Hagel that insurgents could strike even in one of the most heavily guarded parts of the capital, a neighborhood of government buildings and military bases with numerous checkpoints and blast walls.
“This attack was a message to him,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an email to reporters.