Kabul’s streets were once again smeared with blood on Wednesday morning, as a powerful bomb exploded in the center of the Afghan capital, killing at least 90 people and wounding more than 400 in a devastating attack near the Presidential palace and foreign embassy buildings. The death toll looked set to climb as local hospitals were overrun with casualties from the attack.
The epicenter of the blast was a busy section of Kabul near the Arg, the 19th century fortress that houses the President’s home and residence, and close to the German embassy. It was timed to coincide with the morning rush hour, when Kabul’s roads are packed with cars and traffic in many parts is slow moving. “The blast was so huge that it dug a big crater as deep as four meters,” General Hassan Shah Frogh, Kabul’s police chief, told the New York Times.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, which came as Muslims around the world mark the holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban, which has grown increasingly more powerful following the departure of most foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2014, denied that it was behind the attack, according to the Reuters news agency. Earlier in May, eight civilians died when an ISIS suicide bomber struck a NATO convoy that was making its way through Kabul.
Condemning the latest attack on the capital, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said: “Even in this holy month of Ramadan which is a month of worship, virtue and blessings, terrorists have no intention to stop killing the innocent people.”
Throughout the morning, plumes of smoke continued to rise from the blast site, a reminder, in the most tragic way, of the deteriorating security situation in the country more than a decade and a half after U.S.-led forces displaced the Taliban regime from Kabul.
In recent years, insurgents and terrorist groups have increasingly gained ground across Afghanistan, with the government’s control or influence extending to only around 60% of districts nationwide. Around 13,000 NATO troops remain stationed in the country, among them some 8,400 Americans, who are focused on two missions: training Afghan forces and countering the worsening terror threat. Twenty of the 98 U.S. designated terrorist groups worldwide operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. “This is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world,” General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in the country, told the Senate in February.
Wednesday’s blast came as the U.S. considers sending an additional 3,000-5,000 troops to Afghanistan to help in a war that President Ghani, in an interview with TIME in Kabul this month, said mattered for global security. “If I am correct in saying that this is a war over Afghanistan, I would like the American taxpayer to imagine, [given] what Osama [bin Laden] alone could do … what if a third, a half, God forbid, or all of Afghanistan, is a center of global terrorism incorporated?” he said. “The threats, given the way threats operate now, will become much more pronounced.”
Ghani highlighted the threat from ISIS, which was the target of the so-called of Mother of Bombs dropped by U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan in April. “I would say hundreds, not thousands. But hundreds that are lethal,” he said, when asked about the number of ISIS fighters in the country. Al-Qaeda, he added, was also still active in the country. “We’ve eliminated a number of key places and we’ve captured a lot of information. [But] it’s not finished by any means,” he told TIME.