A suicide attacker struck the fortified heart of the Afghan capital with a massive truck bomb Wednesday, killing 90 people, wounding 400 and raising new fears about the government’s ability to protect its citizens nearly 16 years into a war with insurgents.
The bomber drove into Kabul’s heavily guarded diplomatic quarter during the morning rush hour, leaving behind a bloody scene of chaos and destruction in one of the worst attacks since the drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
Most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children, said Ismail Kawasi, spokesman of the public-health ministry. But the dead also included Afghan security guards at the facilities, including the U.S. Embassy, while 11 American contractors were wounded – none with life-threatening injuries, a U.S. State Department official said.
“I have been to many attacks, taken wounded people out of many blast sites, but I can say I have never seen such a horrible attack as I saw this morning,” ambulance driver Alef Ahmadzai told The Associated Press. “Everywhere was on fire and so many people were in critical condition.”
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which came in the first week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban flatly denied any involvement in an email to news outlets and condemned all attacks against civilians.
The explosives were hidden in a tanker truck used to clean out septic systems, said Najib Danish, deputy spokesman for the interior minister. The number of dead and wounded was provided by the Afghan government’s media center, citing a statement from the Afghan Ulema Council, the country’s top religious body that includes Muslim clerics, scholars and men of authority in religion and law.
The blast gouged a crater about 15 feet deep near Zanbaq Square in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, where foreign embassies are protected by a battery of their own security personnel as well as Afghan police and National Security Forces. The nearby German Embassy was heavily damaged.
Also in the area is Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, the Presidential Palace and its intelligence and security headquarters, guarded by soldiers trained by the U.S. and its coalition partners.
“The terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people,” said President Ashraf Ghani.
President Donald Trump spoke with Ghani after the attack.
“The United States stands with the government and the people of Afghanistan and will continue to support their efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity for their country,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
Afghanistan’s war, the longest ever involving U.S. troops, has shown no sign of letting up, and the introduction into the battle of an Islamic State affiliate has made the country only more volatile.
Although they are small in number, militants from the Islamic State in Khorasan have taken credit for several brazen assaults on the capital.
“Let’s be clear: This is an intelligence failure, as has been the case with so m any other attacks in Kabul and beyond. There was a clear failure to anticipate a major security threat in a highly secured area,” said Michael Kugelman of the U.S.-based Wilson Center.
Still, there are questions about whether a U.S. pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan will curb the violence.
“The sad reality is that more foreign troops would not necessarily ensure these attacks happen less,” Kugelman said. “But they could help by supplementing training programs meant to enhance Afghan intel-collection capacities, which have long been a deficiency in Afghanistan.”
There are currently 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with a U.S. promise of more to come.