(CNSNews.com) – The Taliban claimed responsibility for an assault early Tuesday morning outside the presidential palace in Kabul, putting fresh strain on already shaky efforts to get some kind of peace talks underway.
After a series of explosions including a suicide car bombing and a gun battle lasting about an hour the area, which also includes governments ministries and a hotel reportedly used by the CIA, was secured, according to Kabul’s police chief, Aoub Salangi.
He told reporters the four attackers, who had used a fake security pass to get through vehicle checkpoints, were dead. Three security guards were killed in the attack.
A Taliban spokesman said in a statement that the presidential palace, defense ministry and Ariana Hotel had been attacked by a “group of martyrdom-seeking mujahideen.”
An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman said Afghan security forces had handled the situation, although ISAF forces were “ready to support if requested.”
On its Twitter account, ISAF said the Taliban attack “clearly shows divisions within their ranks, more of a problem for the Taliban than for the Afghans or Coalition.”
(A purported Taliban spokesman, Abdulqahar Balkhi, quickly tweeted back: “Please do elaborate on your theory, if anything it shows cohesion, more of a problem for Hirelings and Coalition than Taliban.”)
The ISAF comment implied that the militant group is divided over the holding of talks with the Americans and, separately, with the Afghan government.
That initiative appears to be in disarray, just a week after the Obama administration signaled the imminent opening of talks with the Taliban at the group’s newly-opened political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, a development it characterized as a major breakthrough.
That the U.S. and Afghan governments would even consider holding talks with the Taliban while it is continuing to carry out deadly attacks like the one in Kabul early Tuesday appears to fly in the face of long-stated criteria for reconciliation with the group – renouncing violence, ending ties to al-Qaeda, and supporting the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities.
But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last week made it clear that those were now seen as ultimate objectives, rather than prerequisites for entering talks.
“We didn’t expect that they would decry al-Qaeda and decry terrorism immediately off the top,” she said in response to questions about the Taliban taking credit for the killing of American soldiers a day earlier.
“This is an end result, or an end goal, I should say. It’s a bumpy road. We always knew it would be.”
In a series of coordinated moves last Tuesday the Qatari government announced the opening of the office; Taliban representatives held a press conference there and issued a statement saying the group would not allow anyone to threaten other countries from Afghan soil; and U.S. officials said talks between U.S. and Taliban officials would begin as early as Thursday.
But within hours, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reacted angrily to the way the Taliban presented itself, using “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan” signage and hoisting its flag in the manner of an embassy.
Plans for U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, to travel to Doha to open the talks on Thursday stalled, and U.S. officials scrambled to salvage the effort.
Following discussions with the Qataris, a U.S. diplomat told a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York that the dispute had been settled.
“We do not recognize the name ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and are pleased that Qatar has clarified that the name of the office is the ‘Political Office of the Afghan Taliban’ and has had the sign with the incorrect name in front of the door taken down,” said U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N. Rosemary DiCarlo.
Later in the week Secretary of State John Kerry visited Qatar for multilateral talks on the Syrian crisis, and while in Doha he said the hitch over the opening of the Taliban office had occurred because the group had violated an agreement on how the process should unfold, “which has been very painstakingly established.”
“We have performed our part in good faith,” he told reporters on Saturday. “Regrettably, the agreement was not adhered to in the early hours, but thanks to our good friends the Qataris and their efforts, as well as others, it’s sort of been stepped back from. Now we need to see if we can get it back on track.”
Kerry went on to warn that if the Taliban did not cooperate, the office may be shut down.
“If there is not a decision to move forward by the Taliban in short order, then we may have to consider whether or not the office has to be closed,” he said.
If Kerry’s warning was intended to prod Taliban representatives to change their approach it did not succeed. On Monday, officials posted on the Taliban a statement saying reports that they had removed the “Islamic Emirate” nameplate and flag from the office were “baseless and fabricated.”
In a separate statement, Taliban office spokesman Muhammad Naeem took issue with Kerry’s allusion to a broken agreement.
“The raising of the flag and the use of the name of Islamic Emirate were done with the agreement of the Qatari government,” he said. “The statement which states that by using the name and raising the flag, the Islamic Emirate somehow violated an agreement, then this allegation is completely false.”
Naeem did not comment on Kerry’s warning that the office could be closed.
Back in Washington, the State Department raised the possibility that the envisaged talks may now not take place at all.
“Thanks to the efforts of the Qataris and others, there may still be an opportunity to move forward, so we need to see if we can get it back on track,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a briefing. “We don’t know whether that’s possible or not.”
Ventrell pointed out that envisaged U.S.-Taliban talks were distinct from Taliban-Afghan government talks.
“Remember, for us the goal is to get Afghans talking to Afghans. We said that we were open to meeting with the Taliban because we have issues to raise with them directly, but the principal goal is to get Afghans talking to Afghans,” he said.