KABUL, Afghanistan – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Gulf nation of Qatar on Saturday, where he planned to meet with Afghan and Taliban negotiators who are trying to break the deadlock in their stalled peace talks.
Just hours before Mr. Pompeo’s meeting with the belligerent Afghans, a barrage of rockets struck the heart of Kabul, killing at least eight people and injuring more than two dozen. Saturday morning’s attack set off warning sirens that sounded in diplomatic quarters in the Afghan capital, and residents on their morning commute took shelter.
Qatar is the latest stage in Mr. Pompeo’s diplomatic whirlwind in the final hours of the Trump administration, seeking to advance White House foreign policy goals before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes over. his duties in January. The Pentagon said this week it would cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by about half – 2,500, from 4,500.
The troop withdrawal has created uncertainty among Afghan officials, who are hoping for a change in policy under Biden’s leadership. Afghan security forces, still dependent on US airstrikes, have struggled to defend the territory from recent Taliban offensives.
In Doha, which hosted the Afghan peace talks, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have struggled for months over two main sticking points, and negotiators on both sides have said in recent days that they are close to it. a breakthrough.
But Saturday’s attack in Kabul was the latest indication that relentless violence is spiraling across the country despite any talk of peace.
Tariq Arian, spokesman for the country’s interior ministry, said 23 rockets hit downtown Kabul, exploding near a university and a shopping district, among others.
Security officials said they found a burning truck with launch tubes in its bed a distance from where the rockets struck, suggesting the vehicle was used to fire the ammunition. ISIS used a similar attack in March when the group targeted the presidential inauguration.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for Saturday’s attack. A Taliban spokesman said the insurgent group was not involved.
The rare rocket attack on the city came as the Afghan parliament was organizing confirmation votes for 10 ministers.
Farid Ahmad Amiri, manager of the famous downtown Slice bakery, which also serves as a cafe, said he was nearby when the rockets arrived.
“It’s so traumatic,” Amiri said. Security camera footage shared on social media showed a rocket impact almost directly in front of the bakery, dotting a delivery van with shells and injuring its employees.
The attack came in a particularly bloody month. At least 163 civilians were killed in November across the country, according to data compiled by the New York Times. On November 2, three armed men stormed Kabul University, killing at least 22 people, many of them students.
“Confidence in the security forces has vanished,” Amiri said. “How can this happen in the heart of Kabul?”
The relentless attacks, including targeted assassinations, in Kabul and other cities across the country have created growing distrust among Afghan citizens of their government.
Although Afghanistan’s Senior Vice President Amrullah Saleh is leading a crackdown on crime in Kabul, it is not yet clear how a rocket-laden vehicle managed to enter the city and fire its arsenal in broad daylight.
“Even the city center is not safe,” Amiri said.