By Levon Sevunts
Published June 2, 2005

KHOST, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber blew himself up at the funeral of a senior anti-Taliban Muslim cleric yesterday, killing 20 persons and wounding at least 40 others.
Despite President Hamid Karzai’s and coalition troops’ significant efforts to improve security, the rate of kidnappings, tribal shootings, insurgent violence and Iraqi-style suicide bombings has surged in the country since March.
Mr. Karzai said the attack was an “act of cowardice by the enemies of Islam and the enemies of the peace of Afghan people” and ordered an immediate investigation.
Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai said the bomber belonged to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
“The attacker was a member of al Qaeda. We have found documents on his body that show he was an Arab,” Mr. Sherzai said.
The attack at Mullah Abdul Fayaz’s funeral, held three days after he was assassinated in Kandahar, also killed Gen. Akram Khakraizwall, chief of Kabul’s police.
Gen. Khakraizwall had flown into Kandahar to attend the funeral of the high-profile cleric, who had been a key Karzai supporter.
A week before his death, Mullah Fayaz had denounced Taliban insurgents for targeting civilians and called on his fellow clerics at a religious conference of about 500 mullahs in Kandahar to support the Karzai government.
The Council of Scholars revoked the title of “leader of all believers” from the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Army Maj. Joseph Gleichenhaus, brigade operations officer for the Regional Operations East, said that although al Qaeda and the Taliban can mount individual attacks, intelligence suggested they lacked the capability to start large-scale attacks.
He also said there was no unified command or strategy behind the recent violence, despite an increase in attacks on coalition troops and Afghan security forces.
“What we see from our enemy is really a seasonal activity,” said Maj. Gleichenhaus, whose command covers 16 provinces in eastern Afghanistan.
“It’s weather-related, not objective-related,” he said, attributing the rise in attacks along the border with Pakistan to the fact that snow had melted from mountain passes, allowing militants to launch strikes from Pakistan.
Maj. Gleichenhaus acknowledged that the situation was a different in south-central Afghanistan, where the Taliban have a base of support.
Coalition forces, the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police are simultaneously battling an anti-coalition insurgency, private militias, criminal gangs and tribal feuds.
The insurgency is led by remnants of the former Taliban regime, scattered al Qaeda cells and followers of former mujahedeen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has entered into a strategic alliance with the Taliban, despite their past animosity.
Human rights groups working in the country have said the second-largest threat to security are private militias affiliated with different warlords, while criminal gangs pose the greatest risk for ordinary Afghans.
But Jan Mohammed, who runs a shop catering to U.S. soldiers at Camp Salerno in Khost, a large trading town, said the situation had improved compared with last year, when kidnapping threats forced many families to keep their children home.
“This year, however, my younger brother was able to go to school,” Mr. Mohammed said.
Maj. Gleichenhaus said there is little coalition forces can do to stop armed tribal violence caused by disputes over land, water or political power. That role had to be left to the fledging Afghan police force, he said.
“We can’t and we shouldn’t do everything for them,” he said.