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Afghan Presidential Rally Targeted In One Of Two Attacks In Afghanistan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban fell apart last week, the Taliban warned there would be violence. Today, it claimed responsibility for two attacks in Afghanistan that together killed dozens of people. One was in an area of Kabul near the U.S. embassy. The other was 30 miles to the north near a campaign rally for Afghanistan's president. The Washington Post's Pamela Constable was right in front of the stage.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: We heard this very muffled sound, and it wasn't quite sure what it was. It could have been a bomb or it could have been something else. But nothing happened. There were no other sounds, and nobody moved. And the president and his vice presidential running mate continued the program, made their speeches, and then after about an hour, they left. And it wasn't until then that we began to hear reports. We started getting calls. People started hearing rumors that, you know, quite a few people had been killed.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit about the rally's location because it's close to Bagram Air Base, and it's our understanding that this is an area that is considered safe enough for the president to visit in person. I mean, how much of a surprise was an attack of this nature?

CONSTABLE: It was a surprise because of the location and because it was the first attack on any rally since the campaign season opened about a month ago. And it was a large field inside a police training compound, heavily guarded. And I was searched four times before getting in. So there was very, very little expectation of danger, although the president is always heavily guarded whenever he goes anywhere.

CORNISH: We said earlier that the Taliban has claimed responsibility for two deadly attacks, and the other was behind an attack in Kabul that was close to the U.S. embassy. What have you learned about that?

CONSTABLE: Yes. That was a car bombing near the embassy but also near Afghan defense facilities. A lot of these bombings tend to be described as near the U.S. embassy, but they're actually closer to these Afghan defense complexes. But, you know, unfortunately, it happened in a place where bombings happen all the time. That part of the city of the capital has had, you know, many, many, many of these suicide bombings. So, I mean, I hate to put it that way, but it wasn't a surprise. The bombing at the campaign rally definitely was.

CORNISH: Is anything that we're seeing here the results of talks falling apart between the U.S. and the Taliban? I mean, we mentioned earlier that the Taliban warned that there would be violence.

CONSTABLE: That's not a new phenomenon. But when you add in the fact that after nine or 10 months of talks suddenly what appeared to be, you know, an advancing and even finalizing process between the U.S. and Taliban negotiators suddenly got canceled for a variety of reasons by President Trump, that added a whole new element of uncertainty of threat, of expectation and fear that the Taliban would make things worse, which they have.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what does this mean for the elections in Afghanistan?

CONSTABLE: It certainly doesn't say anything good. The government, you know, keeps saying that it's planning to protect the polls, that it will protect the polls, that it's sending out - I think, 70,000 defense security personnel will be deployed across the country to protect the polls. But it's also said that it's going to have to shut down - almost a third of polling places that were used in previous elections will not be open because they don't feel they can protect them. So that's a pretty strong admission of the limited ability of defense forces. So this has been a violent season, and I don't think anybody expects it to become less so.

CORNISH: That's Pamela Constable of The Washington Post. She spoke to us from Kabul.

Thank you so much for sharing your reporting.

CONSTABLE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.