Michael Ware


TIME: No Shortage of Suspects in Kabul Bombing


The stomach-clutching thud of an explosion rolled across Kabul at around 9pm last Saturday. It began with a flash in a small garbage pile on a grassy common outside a sprawling Soviet-era tenement. The building is home to several hundred families in the suburb of Microyan, and the detonation, only thirty yards from the ground floor apartments, shattered every window facing the park in the crumbling five-story block. Sleeping children woke terrified, coated in shards of glass. A three-year-old stood by her mother, her face laced with tiny cuts. Two or three people were reported injured, none seriously. For hours the tinkling of sweeping glass could heard up and down the corridors.

A government spokesman, on the scene within the hour, neatly coiffured and wearing a suit, blamed terrorists for placing the device "in an open field" behind "a defense ministry building." Media reports described it as a bomb in a residential area not far from the U.S. embassy. "We know who these people are who are against peace and stability," the spokesman, Omar Samad, said of the bombers.

But nothing is ever quite as it seems in Kabul. The defense ministry building against whose wall the bomb had been left was not an empty set of offices; it's the headquarters of Afghan military intelligence. At the time of the explosion General Zahir Akbar, the country's military intelligence chief, was at his large varnished desk scribbling orders on scraps of paper. Though the building was all but empty, it seems as if someone knew he would be there. "He was the target," one of his aides told TIME amid the debris of the general's office minutes after the bombing. "We had been expecting this explosion."

Gen Akbar is an urbane, educated and thoughtful military man who is currently teaching himself English. A Soviet-educated professional soldier, he had been one of many who left the communist regime during the Soviet occupation to join the resistance in the Panjshir Valley led by the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud. He fought in the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and was on the frontlines during last year's U.S.-led bombing campaign. In the new order of president Hamid Karzai, Akbar is a man on the rise. Though he owes his position to the powerful defense minister, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, it's possible others in the defense minister's circle perceive Akbar as a political rival. As the general's staff pointed out, U.S. officers and senior brass from the International Security Assistance Force that protects Kabul are frequent visitors to his busy headquarters. It suggests a level influence likely to cause jealousy in the internecine world of Afghan military affairs. "It was someone out to get the general," an aide said, dismissing the notion of terrorist involvement.

The possibility that the bombing may have been a play in a violent internal power game is not a possibility government spokesman Samad was prepared to contemplate. "This is not about rivalry," he told TIME walking away from the blast-scene on Saturday night. "This is not an issue of one general attacking a rival. It's clearly terrorists, they've just made threats in the last few days and now they're carrying them out. It's clear."

By Sunday morning, the office of military intelligence had accepted the government position that it was a terrorist strike. And despite having inspected the crater that night and concurring with an Italian officer from ISAF that a crude bomb had been planted, the general's staff said the device was a misdirected rocket.

But their amended version did not hold up for long

By 10am Sunday, ISAF confirmed a rocket had not exploded, according to a specialist ordinance team. The explosion had been caused by a bomb. "It doesn't appear to have been intended to cause serious harm," ISAF spokesman Squadron Leader Terry Hay told a briefing. "It seems to have been very much for effect."

An investigation is continuing, but with two cabinet ministers' assassinations and a string of Kabul bombings as yet unsolved or unexplained it's not expected any culprits will be found soon. And though the list of suspects, as in all these incidents, is long, an act of terrorism by re-grouping al-Qaeda or Afghan opposition forces cannot be discounted.

Around Kabul over the 72 hours leading to Saturday night's bombing, a 107mm rocket overshot one of the largest ISAF installations in the city and a search located twelve more that had misfired; a U.S. soldier was shot by a sniper; and in Gardez, two hours to the south, a video store was bombed and a rocket fired at U.S. special forces. These rocket attacks have become increasingly common, launched by timers as basic as a punctured water bucket fixed to drain at a measured speed and complete an electrical circuit, or as sophisticated as electrical boards rigged in Pakistan from VCR components and tripped by a mobile phone. Though the rocket arsenals are plentiful, the accuracy is far from guaranteed. And most Kabulis are probably grateful.