KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday claimed an audacious attack in Afghanistan that killed four United States (US) troops mere hours after Washington said it would talk to the insurgents about ending more than a decade of war.
The deadly rocket attack on Bagram, Afghanistan’s biggest US-led military base just north of Kabul, was a stark reminder of the potency of an Islamist insurgency that has time and again hit major targets.
Prior to the Bagram attack, US President Barack Obama had welcomed the planned talks in Qatar as an “important first step.” But he warned of a bumpy road ahead as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops enter the final stage of a 12-year foreign intervention.
“Last night two big rockets were launched at Bagram [air base]which hit the target,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Agence France-Presse by telephone.
“Four soldiers are dead and six others are wounded. The rockets caused a major fire.”
A US defense official confirmed that four Americans were killed in the attack, but provided no further details.
The Taliban broke off contact with the Americans last year and have always refused to negotiate with Kabul. On Tuesday, they unveiled an office in Qatar “to open dialogue between the Taliban and the world.”
Their statement, however, made no direct reference to peace talks.
Tuesday also saw NATO’s formal transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghan police and army. About 100,000 foreign combat troops, 68,000 of them from the US, are due to withdraw by the end of next year.
A divided insurgency is also likely to complicate talks, amid doubts as to whether the “Haqqani network” of warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former CIA asset turned Al-Qaeda ally, is ready to embrace negotiation.
A Taliban spokesman in Qatar, Mohammad Sohail Shaheen, confirmed before the Bagram strike that the armed group would continue to attack US targets in Afghanistan at the same time as holding any talks.
“There is no ceasefire [with the US]now. They are attacking us and we are attacking them,” Shaheen told the Al-Jazeera news channel, adding that the Taliban “simultaneously follows political and military options.”
Obama insisted the Taliban would have to renounce ties to Al-Qaeda, halt violence and commit to the protection of women and minorities. He warned that US-led NATO forces remain “fully committed” to battling Al-Qaeda.
“An Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is the best way to end the violence and to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region,” Obama said on the sidelines of a G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
Karzai stressed on Tuesday that any dialogue would have to move from Doha, the capital of Qatar, to Afghanistan as soon as possible.
However, Afghanistan on Wednesday suspended talks with the US on a deal that would allow US troops to remain in the country after 2014, officials said, in a clash over proposed talks with the Taliban.
“There is a contradiction between what the US government says and what it does regarding Afghanistan peace talks,” Aimal Faizi, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman, told Agence France-Presse.
“The president suspended the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement] talks with the US this morning.”
The row centered on the Taliban office, which opened in Qatar on Tuesday, using the title “Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan,” the formal name of the Taliban government from 1996 until they were toppled in 2001.
“The president is not happy with the name of the office. We oppose the title the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ because such a thing doesn’t exist,” Faizi said. “The US was aware of the president’s stance.”
The Taliban were driven from power by US-backed rebels after the September 11, 2001 attacks. They have since mounted a guerrilla war against the Afghan government and maintain rear bases in Pakistan.
With the war at a stalemate, the US-led NATO army is concentrating on training Afghan government troops to take charge when most international forces leave in the course of next year.
A US official said American and Taliban envoys would meet in Doha “in a couple of days,” after which the Taliban would meet with a “High Peace Council” set up by Karzai to conduct the negotiations.
In opening their mission, the Taliban did not explicitly renounce Al-Qaeda, which they refused to expel after the 9/11 attacks, but they did vow to prevent attacks being launched from Afghanistan.
The Taliban statement announcing the Doha office said the group “doesn’t want any threats from Afghanistan soil to other countries, and neither permits anyone to threaten other countries using Afghanistan soil.”
Speaking Tuesday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that an eventual disavowal of Al-Qaeda ties by the Taliban was only an “end goal of the process.”
Psaki said James Dobbins, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, would leave Washington later Tuesday bound for Doha to lead the US teams.