Afghan election commissioners recommended suspending Saturday's parliamentary vote in the southern province of Kandahar after the assassination of one of the country's most powerful security chiefs dealt a stunning blow to the Western-backed government.
General Abdul Razeq, the Kandahar police commander, was killed outside the provincial governor's office on Thursday, when a bodyguard opened fire on a group of officials as they left a meeting with General Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Miller was not injured but the regional intelligence agency commander was killed and the provincial governor severely wounded, decimating the leadership of one of the country's most strategically important provinces.
Although nominally a provincial police chief, Razeq was one of the most powerful political figures in Afghanistan and a formidable opponent of the Taliban, with unchallenged authority across the volatile south of the country.
The recommendation to suspend the vote in Kandahar province must still be approved by a vote of the National Security Council and other government agencies and some officials warned that any delay would threaten the whole process and hand the Taliban a major propaganda victory.
"The security agencies will vote to hold the election in Kandahar on time because there are enough troops to provide security," said one senior official.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was too soon to say what effect Razeq's death would have but added that the U.S. military's mission was unaltered.
"We need to find who's done this," Mattis told reporters travelling with him in the southeast Asian city-state of Singapore. "But right now, we are going toward the election and we will continue to defend the Afghan people."
Thursday's attack underlined how precarious the situation remains in Afghanistan after more than 17 years of war and even after Taliban and U.S. officials have opened preliminary contacts to find a basis for future peace talks.
It was unclear how the attack would affect a peace process, following a meeting last week of Taliban officials and the U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, but it complicates an already difficult situation.
"You're going to start asking questions about, 'Well, how trustworthy are they? What influence do they really have?'" said one former Defense Department official who left the Pentagon recently, referring to the Taliban.
"And you know the bottomline question is, 'Why are we still dealing with them?' or 'Should we deal with them?'"
Mattis said he had not spoken to Miller and could not confirm the Taliban's claim of responsibility but believed the attack would not affect Miller's security arrangements or U.S. military movements in Afghanistan.
The Taliban issued a fresh warning not to take part in the election on Friday, telling people to stay at home and saying it would shut down roads and would be "closely monitoring all developments".
Mattis was cautious about whether the Thursday attack could hit voter turnout but said the U.S. aim of finding a negotiated, Afghan-led political solution to the conflict was unchanged.
"We remain absolutely committed to an Afghan-led Afghan reconciliation," he said.
Miller, who knew Razeq well from his previous tours of duty in Afghanistan, issued a statement saluting a "great friend".
"Afghanistan lost a patriot," he said on Twitter. "The good he did for Afghanistan and the Afghan people cannot be undone."
A disarmingly youthful-looking figure, with a toothy smile belying a fearsome reputation, the 39-year-old Razeq was accused of building a fortune from extracting millions of dollars from traders and businesses.
He was also accused of torturing prisoners and other abuses, which he denied.
Last year, the United Nations Committee against Torture cited "numerous and credible allegations" that Razeq was complicit in severe human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and secret detention centres.
He clashed frequently with President Ashraf Ghani, defying attempts to sack him, but he enjoyed popular support in Kandahar and the surrounding provinces and was adept at navigating the region's complex tribal politics.
He was also highly respected by U.S. officers who saw his ruthless methods as the most effective weapon against the Taliban in both Kandahar and the wider south.
"Razeq was, kind of, the embodiment of security, not just in Kandahar. It is Uruzgan, it's Zabul province," said the recently retired Defense Department official.
"He had a lot of sway over other senior officials and certainly in the police."