KABUL, Afghanistan – The front-runner for the Afghan presidency narrowly escaped assassination Friday when two bombs struck his convoy as it traveled between campaign events in the capital, underscoring the country's fragility as it prepares for its first democratic transfer of power and the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of this year.
The candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, was unharmed and defiantly vowed to press ahead with his campaign, calmly telling an election rally that "the aim of this incident was to create fear and anxiety among the people and prevent them from deciding their own destiny."
But it was a close call for a man who many in the West hope will guide Afghanistan through a particularly difficult transition, provide a steadier hand than the mercurial outgoing President Hamid Karzai and sign a security pact to allow about 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country for another two years.
At least 10 people, including three in Abdullah's entourage, were killed and dozens were wounded in the attack, which heavily damaged the front of his armored car, destroyed several vehicles and storefronts and left the street littered with twisted metal and other rubble.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the bombings bore the hallmarks of Taliban militants who have vowed to disrupt the election as part of their fight against the Western-backed government. Karzai blamed the attack on "enemies of Afghanistan who don't want free elections."
The attack took place eight days before a runoff in which Afghans are to choose a new leader. The Taliban have recently staged a series of high-profile bombings this year, though the first round of voting on April 5 was relatively peaceful. The attempt on Abdullah's life appeared to be the first attack targeting a candidate – as opposed to their offices and workers – since campaigning began earlier this year.
If one of the candidates were to die, that would have huge implications not only for Afghanistan's stability but for the Obama administration's hopes for a signed security agreement in time to make preparations for keeping a residual U.S. force of trainers and advisers in the country after 2014. Both candidates in the June 14 runoff say they will sign the pact, which Karzai has refused to do. The Afghan constitution says new elections must be held in the event of a candidate's death.
A former Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah was the runner-up in the disputed presidential elections of 2009 and hopes again now to succeed Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Abdullah is the leading contender in the runoff, facing former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. In the initial balloting, he garnered 45 percent of votes while Ahmadzai came in second with 31.6 percent.
Abdullah – who is half Pashtun and half Tajik – has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks but has sought to broaden his support base by choosing a well-known leader of the minority ethnic Hazara group and a Pashtun leader of the powerful Hezb-i-Islami group as vice presidential candidates.
Former presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul, who is now supporting Abdullah, was in the car with Abdullah on Friday but was not injured.
Abdullah had just addressed a rally at a wedding hall and was heading toward a campaign event at the Intercontinental Hotel when his convoy was hit along a street in a commercial area of western Kabul. The attack took place about noon, when many Afghans were indoors for Friday prayers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said a suicide bombing was followed by a roadside bomb. But Gul Agha Hashim, Kabul's criminal investigation chief, said the first blast was carried out by a suicide bomber on foot and the second by a suicide car bomber.
Health Minister Suraya Dalil told The Associated Press that 10 people were killed and 37 wounded. Three of those killed were a driver and two were bodyguards in another car in Abdullah's convoy, according to Fazel Sangcharaki, a spokesman for the candidate.
His election opponent, Ahmadzai, condemned the attack.
"The people behind this are undoubtedly the enemies of this country who are taking the lives of innocents," Ahmadzai said. "These people don't want Afghanistan to be seen as a democratic country."
"Abdullah is my opponent, but I would not want any harm to come to him," he told the AP during a visit to the southern city of Kandahar. "I want it to be purely the people's choice whom they want to be their next leader."
The vote comes at a pivotal time as the international community prepares to withdraw combat forces by the end of this year. The U.S. and its coalition allies have tried to transform a small and ineffectual Afghan military and police into a huge force of 350,000, but huge obstacles remain. Large parts of the country have become practically inaccessible.
Although billions of dollars have poured into the country since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, much of this money landed in the pockets of corrupt businessmen and politicians, further widening the divide between rich and poor. The rampant poverty has helped keep alive the Taliban insurgency, which shows no sign of letting up.
In the early days after the U.S.-led alliance toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, Abdullah became the face of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban movement, giving frequent press conferences to international media.
Abdullah previously served as a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance rebel commander who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"The enemy cannot defeat us or prevent the decision of the people of Afghanistan," the candidate declared after Friday's attack.