KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai acknowledged Saturday that the U.S. and Afghan governments have held talks with Taliban emissaries in a bid to end the nation’s nearly 10-year war, even as suicide attackers launched a bold assault in the heart of the country’s capital, killing nine people.
The attack, which occurred just blocks from Karzai’s office, shows the parties have a long way to go to reach a political settlement as the Obama administration weighs a major withdrawal of its forces. The White House neither directly confirmed nor denied Karzai’s statement.
Three men wearing camouflage fatigues that are frequently worn by Afghan soldiers stormed a police station near the presidential palace, with one of them detonating an explosives vest just outside the gates as two others rushed inside and began firing, an Interior Ministry statement said.
The crackle of gunfire echoed through the usually bustling streets for about two hours before security forces killed the two remaining attackers. Insurgents killed three police officers, one intelligence agent and five civilians in the attack, according to the ministry statement.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message.
Kabul is one of seven areas scheduled to begin to be handed over to Afghan security control in July – part of NATO’s efforts to begin transferring security responsibilities ahead of its planned 2014 withdrawal.
The assault occurred shortly after Karzai announced during a speech to youth at the presidential palace that members of his peace council and the U.S. have begun preliminary peace negotiations with the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for five years and sheltered al-Qaida before the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Reports about such talks have surfaced in recent months, but Karzai’s statement was the first public confirmation of U.S. participation. Publicly, the Taliban say there will be no negotiations until foreign troops leave.
“In the course of this year, there have been peace talks with the Taliban and our own countrymen,” Karzai said. “Peace talks have started with them already and it is going well. Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said only that the U.S. has “consistently supported an Afghan-led” peace process.
“Over the past two years, we have laid out our red lines for the Taliban: They must renounce violence; they must abandon their alliance with al-Qaida; and they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan,” Toner said. “This is the price for reaching a political resolution … .”
Karzai’s rambling speech likely overstates the progress of the delicate negotiations both his government and others face in identifying and wooing potential Taliban leaders.
However, such talks may be gaining momentum after the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Friday to treat al-Qaida and the Taliban separately when it comes to U.N. sanctions, a move aimed at supporting the Afghan government’s reconciliation efforts.