KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber killed at least 31 people on Sunday as they lined up at a government office in Kabul to register to vote, raising new concerns about violence undermining Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary elections.
The attacker detonated his explosives as national identity cards were being distributed in the western part of Kabul, the capital.
Wahidullah Majrooh, a spokesman for the Afghan Health Ministry, said 31 people were known dead and at least 54 others wounded.
The victims had gone to the office in response to a push by the authorities to get more people to register to vote. Public interest in the October elections has been alarmingly low because of voter fatigue after successive fraudulent elections and concerns about the threat to safety at polling stations posed by suicide bombers and other violence from groups opposing the government.
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The country’s parliamentary elections have been delayed by three years as the leaders of the coalition government, which came out of a messy presidential election that almost tore the country apart, debated measures to prevent the fraud that had marred previous elections.
After public disagreements that added to the voter fatigue, the leaders announced an October date for the elections. They also decided to declare void the millions of voter identification cards already in circulation, which have been used in vote rigging in the past.
Instead, they asked people to return to their local polling centers and register with their national ID cards. Officials and party leaders have expressed concern about the low response, especially after recent attacks targeting registration centers or their staff.
MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Four attacks across Afghanistan on Saturday night and Sunday killed at least 26 government security officers, while two schools were also set ablaze, according to Afghan officials.
The four attacks struck government outposts in northern and eastern Afghanistan; at least three appeared coordinated. They occurred late at night or early in the morning, with the attackers using long-range sniper rifles and night-vision equipment, according to Afghan officials, who tallied at least 10 wounded in all, along with those killed.
In separate assaults, a girls’ high school in Logar Province, near the capital, Kabul, was burned on April 11, and masked attackers struck a school in the village of Momandara, in Nangarhar Province, on Saturday night, setting archives and labs ablaze, according to education officials.
No one was reported hurt in those two attacks.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but government officials blamed Taliban insurgents for the attacks on the government outposts. In recent years, mainstream Taliban forces have normally refrained from attacking schools.
In the Sancharak District, in the northern Sar-i-Pul Province, which has teetered between government and Taliban control over the past year, the governor, Naqibullah Daqiq, said that two government checkpoints in the west had been attacked by Taliban fighters using night-vision equipment and sniper rifles, with one guard killed at first.
When local pro-government militiamen tried to counter the assault, they fell into a Taliban ambush, and 10 others were killed, Mr. Daqiq said.
Nematullah Tofan, the police chief of the district of Dawlat Abad, in another northern province, Faryab, said that two government checkpoints in the village of Khairabad had fallen to Taliban fighters after their snipers killed four government defenders, shooting each of them in the head.
Attacks by insurgents using sophisticated night-vision technology have risen in the past year, especially against police and militia units that do not have such equipment. Afghan officials have asked for the gear to be issued to their police officers, but American officials have been reluctant to do so for fear that it would fall into Taliban hands.
The third attack was in Ghazni Province, in southeastern Afghanistan, where two Afghan Local Police checkpoints in the district of Jaghatu were attacked at 2 a.m. Sunday, killing eight officers and wounding four others, according to Hamidullah Nawruz, a member of the Ghazni provincial council.
Afghan Local Police officers are militiamen defending their own communities; they are generally less trained and not as well equipped as the national police.
A fourth attack took place on Sunday afternoon, when three guards outside Nangarhar University in the eastern city of Jalalabad took a break for worship. Gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on them while they were praying, killing two immediately, according to a news release from the provincial governor’s office. The third guard fled but was chased by the gunmen and killed as well, according to a witness who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The girls’ high school in Logar Province, in a village in Mohammad Agha District, was attacked on April 11 by gunmen who beat up the night watchmen and locked them in a room, then set the school afire, according to Kabir Haqmal, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education. It was unclear why the attack had not been previously disclosed.
The school has 981 female students and 21 teachers, Mr. Haqmal said. It is in the home district of President Ashraf Ghani, 35 miles from Kabul.
In Nangarhar Province, the attack in Momandara was the third time a school in that district had been targeted in the past month, according to Mohammad Asif Shinwari, a spokesman for the provincial education ministry.
Attacks on schools by Taliban insurgents were common 10 years ago but proved so unpopular with communities that the insurgents announced that they would not be continued, even claiming to support girls’ education, although few such schools operate in areas dominated by the militants.
“The relationship Lorena had with children was magic,” her colleagues wrote in a tribute later. “Whenever Lorena was around, the environment was radiant.”
Mr. Nasim’s attack put at risk a treasured institution run by the Red Cross for nearly three decades, serving thousands of the war wounded in northern Afghanistan. Not only was the orthopedic center closed for two months after the killing, but the agency is now looking to transfer it to another group if it can find one willing to take it over.
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Mr. Nasim struggled to explain what he had done and why. First, he described it as an impulsive act. But he had brought the gun to Mazar-i-Sharif from his home in Baghlan Province two days before the shooting, which would have required smuggling it past numerous checkpoints along the way.
Then he claimed the Taliban had forced him to do it, threatening to kill his family if he did not. The Taliban vehemently denied that, praising the work the Red Cross does. In a separate interview, Mr. Nasim’s own father, Amin Jan, scoffed at his son’s claim and disowned him.
“I don’t know what made me do this,” Mr. Nasim said.
He is far from the only Afghan to have killed a foreigner with no apparent provocation. In 2014, a police officer killed an Associated Press photographer. Another killed three Americans at a hospital. Both told investigators they did not know why they had done it.
Neither had any known Taliban or insurgent connections; nor did Mr. Nasim.
While his motivations are murky, Mr. Nasim makes no effort to deny his guilt.
“I will go to hell for what I did,” he said. “I should just be killed.”
Mr. Nasim has yet to be tried on the murder and terrorism charges he faces. Afghanistan has the death penalty and often uses it.
He has already paid a price. Mr. Nasim shares a cell in the Mazar-i-Sharif prison with 40 others. One of his orthotic braces fell off during his arrest and was left behind, as was his wheelchair. In prison, his other brace broke.
“Now I am not able to walk any more,” he said. “I just go around on my hands.”
He said he would not ask the Red Cross to fix his braces or return his wheelchair.
“I am too ashamed,” he said. Another prisoner had to carry him on his back a short distance from his cell to the prison’s telephone office for the interview.
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Mr. Nasim said he was less worried about his own condition than about the Red Cross center’s future.
“I would be ready to die to keep that center open now,” he said. “No one knows more than me how much we are helpless without them.”
The offer on the table, made by President Ashraf Ghani, included recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political party, passports for their officials, an office in Kabul or somewhere else they preferred, the release of Taliban prisoners and efforts to remove their leaders from international sanctions lists.
Just because the Taliban may be discussing the offer does not mean they’re going to take it, of course. Most of the Taliban figures reached for comment by The New York Times preferred to remain quiet, referring the queries to representatives in Qatar. Members at the office in Qatar, in return, did not respond to requests for comment.
Some Taliban figures who did speak made sure to express their old mistrust of any peace offer by the Western-backed Afghan government.
Mullah Hamidee, a Taliban military commander in the south, said: “Our stance on peace talk is totally dependent on foreign troops’ abandoning our country. Anytime they set the date for leaving, we will be willing to talk on peace.”
One senior Taliban commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was talking to the news media without the leadership’s permission, insisted that the insurgents were not ready to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. The discussions underway, he said, are over what kind of negotiations might be acceptable, “but the mood of leadership is likely to not initiate peace talks with the Afghan government.”
While that is far from a rousing endorsement, it is a long way from the Taliban’s outright and fulsome dismissal of past peace initiatives, always insisting that they would talk only to the “occupiers,” meaning the American military, as long as they remained on Afghan soil.
Recently, several former officials involved in previous efforts to negotiate with the Taliban said the United States would need to play larger role as facilitator if the insurgents were to take any prospects of negotiations seriously.
One senior diplomat in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, said the government’s offer had been a game changer.
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“The Taliban feel a bit confused, they feel pressured,” he said. “At the Kabul conference, everybody said they should talk to the Afghan government; they are the only ones insisting they should talk to the occupiers.”
As the government of Uzbekistan convened the conference here, pressure on the Taliban came from another, unexpected quarter: the group’s own heartland.
In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, a major Taliban stronghold, a suicide bombing at a wrestling match Friday killed 14 people. This week hundreds of Helmand residents held a sit-in, vowing to carry out a “long march” to the Taliban-held town of Musa Qala to demand peace talks. The protesters included women, rarely seen outside their homes in that conservative corner of Afghanistan.
“The only aim of the sit-in is to stop fighting from both sides,” said one of the organizers, Iqbal Khaibar. “The Taliban should not send bombers and the government should not drop bombs on them.”
He said their march would take place without security: “This is our country and we can go anywhere in it.”
Akram Khpalwak, the head of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council secretariat, was among the optimists. “The narrative needed to change,” he said. “There was a perception that, over the years, the Taliban wanted peace but the government side did not have a clear plan for it, and was not offering a comprehensive plan. We wanted to change that perception, and make an offer that leaves few questions.”
Mr. Ghani’s offer to the Taliban came after consultations among all elements of Afghan society, Mr. Khpalwak said, including the most ardent anti-Taliban factions and the most sympathetic.
So optimistic is Mr. Ghani’s government that when the American secretary of defense, James N. Mattis, visited Kabul recently, the two men spent most of their time discussing the technical measures that would be needed to implement the government’s offers and get peace talks underway, according to Afghan officials briefed on Mr. Mattis’s visit.
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The Taliban are no longer the united force they were under their former leader, Mullah Omar, but they are also reeling from heavy battlefield losses — as is the government side. While the insurgents have continued to gain territory, no clear victory is in sight for either side.
In addition, the Pakistanis have come under heavy pressure from the United States over the issue of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The Afghan government hoped that the Tashkent conference would help bring the Russians on board, as well, particularly with the involvement of its Central Asian allies, Uzbekistan and its neighbors. The Uzbek president, Shavkat Myrziyoyev, offered to host eventual peace talks.
But the conference convened in the midst of widespread expulsions of Russian diplomats by Western countries, and Russians were reported to be unhappy with what they see as sidelining Moscow from the peace process.
The American military has accused Russia of working behind the scenes with the Taliban. In a recent interview with the BBC, the American commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson, said the Russian “activity really picked up in the last 18 to 24 months.” He said, “Prior to that we had not seen this kind of destabilizing activity by Russia here.”
That led to a furious response from the Russian Embassy in Kabul. “Those who are really responsible for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan are trying to put the burden of guilt for their failures on Russia and damage the Russian-Afghan relations,” the embassy said in a statement.
Despite such setbacks, Mr. Ghani’s recent offer was the most concrete sign of progress in at least the past three years.
The high point came in 2015, when the two sides actually met in person near Islamabad, Pakistan, for exploratory talks. But the next session was scuttled when it turned out that the Afghans were, in effect, negotiating with a dead man: The Taliban’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had died more than two years earlier, and the talks fell apart amid those revelations.
But even if the Taliban are willing to join the peace process, said the senior diplomat, a long process of confidence building and pre-talks lies ahead before any actual, face-to-face peace negotiations. More terrorist bombings in Kabul and other Afghan cities would put the Afghan government in a difficult position, he said.