KABUL, Afghanistan — On the eve of a symbolic date for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a truck laden with explosives blew up outside a guesthouse south of the capital on Friday night, killing at least 27 people.
If the blast was the work of the Taliban — there was no immediate claim of responsibility, though the Afghan government quickly blamed the insurgents — it would be the most overt signal yet that the deal the Americans reached with the group at Doha in February 2020 is off.
A secret annex to that deal bars the Taliban from conducting suicide attacks, and they had been in sharp decline until Friday. Instead, the Taliban has maneuvered over the past year to test gray areas of the agreement, by carrying out, for example, targeted assassinations of journalists, officials and intellectuals.
There has been a steady drumbeat of these; on Saturday morning, a Kabul University professor was fatally shot in Kabul. And there has been no letup in attacks on Afghan security forces; dozens have been killed in recent weeks.
But Friday night’s attack in Logar province, with its heavy toll, appeared to represent a deliberate shift in tactics. The driver of the truck blew himself up in an attack that also killed numerous students from rural areas who had been staying at the facility before university entrance exams, officials said. The guesthouse belonged to the family of a prominent member of the Afghan senate, himself recently assassinated by the Taliban.
Dozens of people were buried under the rubble of the obliterated guesthouse in the provincial capital of Pul-e Alam, about 40 miles south of Kabul, and over 100 more were wounded.
The blast occurred just before a May 1 deadline agreed to last year by the Taliban and U.S. officials that was aimed at ending America’s 20-year military presence in Afghanistan.
The U.S. scrapped the May 1 date two weeks ago when President Biden prolonged the American planned withdrawal until Sept. 11. That extension angered the Taliban, who vowed there would be consequences if the U.S. didn’t fully comply with the February 2020 deal.
The Taliban has often said that an American military presence after May 1 would represent a violation of the Doha agreement, and has threatened to attack U.S. forces in response.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Twitter on Saturday that “this violation in principle has opened the way” for his side’s forces “to take every counter-action it deems appropriate against the occupying forces.”
The Taliban’s own website made no mention of the blast in Pul-e Alam Saturday, merely saying that “7 puppets were killed when Mujahideen raided an enemy post” there — “puppets” being the group’s preferred term for government troops.
Whether Friday night’s deadly blast was retaliation against Mr. Biden’s extension was unclear Saturday. U.S. troops have already started to leave the country, and American bases are being dismantled.
The Afghan government, ever eager to portray the Taliban as faithless to the group’s agreement with the Americans, lost no time Saturday in pinning the blame on the Islamist insurgent group.
“These people were preparing for the university entrance exam when the Taliban attacked them,” Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, said on Saturday. “For the Taliban, every single Afghan is a target.”
The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, held the Taliban “responsible for this massive killing of the Muslim people of Afghanistan,” which he said was “against God and against the people.”
The blast occurred just as Afghans were breaking their daylong Ramadan fast. The driver of the truck apparently pulled up to the guesthouse, officials said, claiming to bring supplies for the breaking of the fast.
Just as he did so, the truck exploded, bringing down the roof and destroying the building. Photographs on the Tolo News website showed rescuers searching the rubble in the dark for survivors.
In another sign of faltering government resistance and of the Taliban’s steady encroachment on Afghan cities, the insurgents overran an army base at the edge of the provincial capital of Ghazni on Friday night, capturing 25 soldiers.
Also Saturday, in the south, at Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling facility where a small contingent of NATO and American forces were dismantling what remains of their base there, the Taliban ushered in May 1 with an early afternoon rocket attack.
The U.S. military responded immediately to the rocket attack with an airstrike on a Taliban position, a Defense official said.
Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed from Kandahar, and Farooq Jan Mangal contributed from Khost.