A series of bombings rocked Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on Thursday, killing at least 10 people and wounding scores more, as US and Afghan officials pledged to speed up efforts to reach a negotiated end to the lengthy conflict.

The three blasts came amid a wider surge in violence in Kabul and around Afghanistan, where nine family members were killed in an eastern province Thursday while driving to a wedding.

The Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate claimed responsibility for the first two blasts, while the Taliban claimed the third. US and Afghan security officials, however, blamed the Taliban for all three explosions.

The bombings came just days before the start of campaigning for the September 28 presidential election, in which President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a second term.

Previous polls have been marred by violence from the Taliban and other insurgents who refuse to recognise Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.

The first blast came at about 8:10 am (0340 GMT) when a suicide bomber targeted a bus as it slowed to turn a corner in an area just east of central Kabul, according to security officials and high-resolution surveillance footage seen by AFP.

Civilians scrambled to help stricken passengers off the bus and carried the body of a small child from the vehicle as smoke poured out the rear window. Other bodies could be seen in pools of blood on the road.

About 30 minutes later, a second explosion from a device hidden at the scene hit civilians and Afghan security forces as they responded.

A third blast, apparently targeting some sort of convoy, came later in the morning, also in eastern Kabul.

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said that 11 civilians were killed, including five women and a child, and 45 more wounded.

Health ministry spokesman Wahidullah Mayar said the toll was at least 10 dead and 41 wounded.

“Over the past month, we have seen increased numbers of civilian casualties,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, spokesman for US Forces-Afghanistan.. The Taliban “are not targeting coalition forces. They are injuring innocent Afghans.”

‘Now is the time’

After the carnage unfolded, the US and Afghan governments released a joint statement with their pledges to speed up diplomatic efforts to stem the bloodshed.

Ghani and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed in a telephone call on Wednesday that “now is the time to accelerate efforts to reach a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan,” it said.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Washington’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had been sent to Kabul to “discuss in detail the next steps on the road to peace,” the statement said.

Khalilzad is then expected to fly to Doha to resume talks with the Taliban.

He has held several meetings with the Islamist militants in the past year, the most recent being on July 9, also in Doha.

But the major hurdle has so far been the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. Nothing in the description of the call between Ghani and Pompeo indicated that had changed.

Ghani made the phone call to ask for clarification following President Donald Trump’s remark that the United States could easily win the war in Afghanistan but didn’t “want to kill 10 million people.”

Pompeo assured him that “there has been no change to President Trump’s South Asia strategy, including US commitment to a conditions-based drawdown” of troops, the statement said.

Some observers say the insurgents are increasing attacks to gain greater leverage in the talks.

Family killed

According to NATO, the Taliban has caused 1,075 casualties since April 11, the start of this year’s fighting season.

Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the eastern province of Nangarhar, said a car carrying a family to a wedding was hit by a roadside bomb Thursday in Khogyani district. Six women and three children were killed, he said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

A suicide attack on a wedding in Nangarhar on July 12, reportedly by a child bomber, was claimed by IS, which has a growing footprint in that part of Afghanistan.

The United States has stepped up its air campaign against the Taliban this year, and all sides claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on each other.

The insurgents and a group of Afghans this month made a vague and unbinding pledge to try to reduce civilian deaths to “zero.”

But last year was the deadliest on record for ordinary Afghans.

According to a UN tally, at least 3,804 civilians died in the war in 2018, including 927 children.

Presidential election

After months of delays and political bickering, Afghanistan is preparing for presidential elections which could see more of the bloodshed and fraud allegations that have marred previous polls.

Campaign season begins in earnest Sunday, exactly two months ahead of the poll, when 17 hopefuls will try to beat President Ashraf Ghani as he seeks a second term.

The cast of contenders — all men — includes a former warlord accused of killing thousands, the brother of a mujahideen icon, and a bitter rival seeking retribution.

Here is a look at the key issues:

This year’s election comes at a crucial moment. The Taliban, who are not taking part, think they are on the verge of beating the United States after nearly 18 years of war.

The US is negotiating for a deal that would see foreign forces pull out of the country in return for various Taliban security guarantees, including a pledge that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terror groups.

Washington wants a deal by September 1, but this is unlikely given the complexities and sticking points involved.

This means Afghanistan’s next president must figure out how to deal with the Taliban, who steadfastly have refused to negotiate with the Kabul government.

What’s at stake?

It is unclear what a final peace settlement could look like.

Everything, potentially, could be up for grabs: women’s rights, personal freedoms, the constitution itself.

Many Afghans fear a quick return to Taliban rule or a spiraling civil war.

Afghanistan’s lackluster economy and entrenched corruption will likely take a back seat to the pressing security situation.

Unless a candidate wins a majority on September 28, voting will go to a second round, probably in late November.

One crucial issue is that the elections happen at all.

They have already been postponed twice this year and further delays could lead to more unrest, as Ghani’s rivals are furious about the unexpected extension to his term.

Some observers have said this year’s electoral delays were to make room for US-Taliban talks, but more likely it was down to bungling by election officials.

Some nine million people have registered to vote but allegations persist that some of those are “ghost” voters.

Some candidates have already threatened to boycott the election because they say Ghani is using his position to gain an unfair advantage.

Who are the frontrunners?

Top among Ghani’s rivals is Abdullah Abdullah, currently serving as the president’s own chief executive under an awkward power-sharing arrangement brokered by the US after the fraud-tinged 2014 election.

Abdullah, who also lost against Hamid Karzai in 2009, has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, so is likely to draw support from both groups – a key factor in a nation riven by regional and ethnic rivalries.

Ghani, a Pashtun, appears to have also learned the importance of an inclusive cabinet with all the main Afghan ethnicities – and women. Observers say the race is his to lose.

Another frontrunner is Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Ghani’s former national security advisor, and the former interior minister under Karzai.

Other contenders include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord accused of war crimes and British-educated Ahmad Wali Massoud, the brother of legendary anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.

What do Afghans think?

Many are despondent about the prospects of a fair election, and worry about a repeat of the sort of violent attacks on previous polls by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan’s fragile democracy.

The parliamentary elections last October were plagued with problems with voting machines, voter registrations and allegations of ballot stuffing.

“I cast my votes in two previous elections, but our votes were not counted. This time I am not keen to vote because the result will be fraudulent again,” 30-year-old Mohammad Daud said.

“We have braved the Taliban and … [Islamic State] attacks during elections, but the election results have once again disappointed us.”

AFP