A bomb concealed on a bicycle killed at least eight people Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, as the Pentagon's top military officer said NATO forces hope to reverse the Taliban's momentum in the south with an upcoming offensive in Kandahar.
The bomb went off in the Nahr-e-Sarraj district just north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, police said. It exploded near people who gathered to receive free vegetable seeds provided by the British government as part of a program to encourage them not to plant opium poppy, provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said.
NATO said more than 35 civilians were wounded in the blast, and its forces were helping Afghan authorities control the scene. An investigation into the blast was under way, the alliance's statement said.
Kamaluddin, the deputy provincial police chief who uses only one name, initially said 17 people had died in the attack, but the death toll was later revised to eight. He said the higher original figure had resulted from a miscommunication.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. The acting provincial head of agriculture, Ghulam Sahki, said it could have been the work of drug dealers trying to stop the alternative crop program. NATO and the Afghan government hope poppy farmers in the south where most of the world's opium is grown will adopt legal crops instead given cash incentives and programs like the seed distribution. The narcotics trade helps fund the Taliban insurgency.
A recent NATO operation in the Helmand town of Marjah, south of Lashkar Gah, struck at the heart of the Taliban opium business. NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces took control of the town in a three-week offensive in February and early March but face a fearful and mistrustful population as they work to set up a functioning government.
In Kabul, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday the operation in Marjah was moving forward successfully and that an upcoming offensive in and around the main southern city of Kandahar would be key to stopping the Taliban's growing influence in the south.
Kandahar remains the spiritual heartland of the insurgency. Mullen told reporters it would be military's main focus going into the summer when the operation there kicks into high gear.
"It is a cornerstone in reversing the momentum for the Taliban," Mullen said.
He said that about half of the 30,000 new troops promised by President Barack Obama have yet to arrive and said most of those will be headed to Kandahar city and the surrounding province.
As in Marjah, the Kandahar offensive will focus on winning over the population and installing government as quickly as possible, he said.
But Mullen stressed that Kandahar will be more difficult to take and hold because of the size of the city - about a half million in the urban area and another half million in the area around it - and the entrenched Taliban presence.
"Kandahar is not Marjah, we understand that. It is a much bigger challenge and in that regard has much greater potential to achieve this goal of reversing the momentum," Mullen said.
Seizing control of Kandahar would help to put the Afghan government in a position of strength to pursue reconciliation talks with insurgents, Mullen said.
But, he said, those talks would be premature right now.
"This must be done from a position of strength," Mullen said. "I don't think we're in that position of strength right now."
Mullen said that a number of power brokers and foreign governments wield influence in the Kandahar area. The admiral said he was briefed Tuesday about "a significant shipment of weapons" for insurgents from Iran into Kandahar "not too long ago." He declined to provide further details.