Body parts in trees. Mud walls flattened. Corpses riddled with ball bearings.
NATO and the Afghan government on Thursday blamed a Taliban suicide bomber for the grisly scene at a wedding party where at least 40 people were killed by an intense explosion. But the Taliban claimed they played no role in the blast in the Arghandab district, an insurgent stronghold near the southern city of Kandahar.
Stunned survivors said they suspected a NATO airstrike was responsible, a view that reflects either their deep suspicion of the U.S.-led coalition or fear of Taliban retribution.
Regardless of responsibility, Wednesday night's attack is likely to heighten public concern about a planned NATO military operation in the Kandahar area, the birthplace of the Taliban considered by U.S. commanders as the key to turning back the insurgents.
The top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, acknowledged Thursday that the Kandahar operation will take longer than planned because local Afghans do not yet support it.
‘Crime of ... inhuman proportions’
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said the attack occurred when a suicide bomber entered a rural home where men were celebrating a wedding. The groom was among the 74 wounded. Women guests were in a separate house with the bride.
"This is a crime of massive inhuman proportions against civilians," President Hamid Karzai told a news conference in Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied the insurgents carried out the attack, which occurred in a district where the Taliban remain entrenched despite years of NATO military operations.
Nevertheless, suspicion fell on the insurgents because the family included a number of Afghan policemen, who are often targeted by the Taliban. The groom's brother and two of his cousins were in the police force, according to another cousin, Mohammad Alkozay.
Kandahar provincial Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said doctors at the city hospital had recovered ball bearings from the bodies of the dead. Militants often pack ball bearings and other metal into suicide vests to kill more victims.
"The Taliban are doing two things at once," Wesa told reporters. "On one side they target people who are in favor of the government. Then at the same time, they don't want people to know their real face."
Survivors have questions
In this sun-baked farming village of mud-walled compounds, survivors said they were skeptical that the blast was caused by a suicide bomber because the damage was so extensive. The wall around the compound where the attack occurred was mostly flattened. Blood, human limbs and other body parts — some in the trees — were scattered across the area.
"If it were a suicide attack, there would be some hole in the ground," said Abdul Raziq, a member of the village defense militia.
Mohammad Rassool, a cousin of the groom, said he saw helicopters, including one with guns in the front, flying above the compound before the explosion.
"I was coming toward the wedding and on the way I saw something from a helicopter move toward the village," Rassool said. "After we saw the smoke and fire come up, we knew that a rocket had hit. Why would the Taliban do this when we are not against each other?"
U.S. military spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks denied any coalition airstrike in the area at the time of the attack. Civilian deaths are a sensitive issue in Afghanistan, and the NATO command has acknowledged and apologized for attacks that kill civilians.
Nevertheless, public support for the U.S.-led mission is weakest in the dusty farming communities of southern Afghanistan, where the ethnic Pashtun population provides the Taliban with most of its fighters. It was unclear whether villagers were genuine in their suspicions about NATO or fearful of Taliban reprisals.
"This is a sign of the NATO force's intentions," Naeem Agha, a resident of Kandahar, said of the bombing. "This is what they have in mind. They can hit a marriage ceremony just to kill a single person. That shows their intentions and honesty toward us. If a big government official had been killed, it would be possible to blame the Taliban."
Trouble for NATO
Such public skepticism has complicated NATO's plans to secure Kandahar city, the main urban center of the south with about a half million people. Many Kandaharis fear that the operation will bring more bloodshed without improving security.
In Brussels, McChrystal said the Kandahar operation "will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated," although he insisted he would still demonstrate a turnaround in the war by year's end. McChrystal said he has underestimated the amount of time needed to get local support, but the overall plan for Kandahar remains the same.
"It's a deliberate process," McChrystal said. "It takes time to convince people."
Britain's new prime minister, making his first visit to Afghanistan since being elected last month, acknowledged the need for progress during a press conference with Karzai in Kabul.
"This is the year when we have to make progress — progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but progress also on behalf of people back at home who want this to work," Prime Minister David Cameron said. He affirmed support for the NATO mission but ruled out sending more troops to Britain's 9,500-strong force.
The Wednesday blast happened during a spike in bloodshed. At least 20 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan this month — including an American who died Thursday by a roadside bombing. The victim's name was not released.
Afghan authorities in Helmand province said the Taliban hanged a 7-year-old boy in public Tuesday for allegedly spying for NATO forces. The Taliban have denied the report, and journalists are unable to visit the village where the hanging occurred because of security.
On Wednesday, insurgents dragged a member of the Kandahar provincial council, Amir Mohammad Noorzai, from his house and killed him, local government spokesman Zalmai Ayoubi said.