A group of gunmen and Taliban suicide bombers attacked an Afghanistan Independent Electoral Commission office in Kabul. The office is adjacent to Afghan presidential candidate and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani’s residence. Afghanistan’s presidential election will take place on April 5 and the nation is on high-alert given that the Taliban has ramped up its efforts to conduct a campaign of bombings and attacks ahead of the elections. This attack was one of many across Afghanistan on Tuesday and comes on the heels of a major attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul last week.
According to Reuters, Afghan security forces engaged in a firefight with the Taliban militants after cordoning off the neighborhood. The incident took place in Western Kabul and lasted for over four hours. A candidate for a provincial council seat was among the Taliban’s victims at the IEC office. According to reports by Pakistan’s DAWN, over 70 civilians were trapped in the IEC office during the incident and Afghan security forces and police were able to save all but three.
The Taliban, which is excluded from the political process in Afghanistan pending reconciliation and peace talks, has focused its attacks on Afghanistan’s democratic architecture ahead of the election. It has also targeted presidential candidates specifically. Afghan security forces and international troops remaining in Afghanistan have focused on securing polling stations ahead of and during the elections in the past — the same practices will be implemented this year.
Afghanistan’s upcoming elections are an incredibly significant political milestone for the country. If successful, they will not only mark the first instance of a democratic transfer of power in the country since the fall of the Taliban government, but also lead to incumbent President Hamid Karzai’s departure. The elections are also occurring on a tight timetable with regard to the impending U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The winner of Afghanistan’s presidential election will have a limited amount of time to negotiate the terms of a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States and a Status of Forces Agreement with NATO that would allow additional troops to stay on in Afghanistan past the end-of-2014 withdrawal deadline. All of the mainstream presidential candidates in the Afghan elections — Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani, and Zulmai Rassoul — have expressed an interest in cooperating with the United States and NATO on those matters.
Western diplomats and Afghan officials were uncertain about what the Taliban’s mode of conduct would be during election season, but a series of recent incidents have clarified that they have opted for violence and to destabilize Afghanistan at a vulnerable moment politically. “There was some speculation about what (the Taliban’s) attitude would be during the election…whether they were just threatening, or would really execute this threat,” said one Western diplomat to Reuters. “It turns out they have really decided to implement this threat.”