Fresh Assault Struck Kabul as Pompeo expected to address Afghan Warring Parties
State Secretary Mike Pompeo met with leaders of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in a peace talks impasse.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Qatar's Gulf country on Saturday, where he met with Afghan and Taliban negotiators seeking to sever their failed peace talks. He arrived hours after a deadly rocket attack in Kabul, the new facts spiraling through Afghanistan.
The rocket barrage smashed into Kabul's center, killing at least eight civilians, injuring over two dozen. Early Saturday's assault started warning sirens blacking around the Afghan capital's diplomatic quarters, and people took shelter on their morning commute.
According to SITE Intelligence Community, which tracks Islamic State announcements, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Many observers see the party as a primary spoiler for any potential stability in Afghanistan.
Qatar is the next stop on Mr. Pompeo's whirlwind lap of diplomacy in Trump's final hours, trying to put through White House foreign policy agendas before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. assumes office in January. This week the Pentagon announced it would cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by almost half—to 2,500, from 4,500 by mid-January.
The withdrawal of the troops has sown doubt among Afghan officials looking for a policy transition under Mr. Biden. Afghan security forces, already relying on U.S. airstrikes, have suffered from recent Taliban offensives to protect territory.
In Doha, which hosted the peace talks, leaders of the Afghan government and the Taliban have wrestled for months over two key stumbling points, and in recent days negotiators on both sides have said they are close to a breakthrough.
The Afghan government and the Taliban have been stuck on which Islamic school to use during the talks to settle conflicts, and how the U.S.-Taliban agreement is cited during them.
The U.S. can "sit on side and help where we can," Mr. Pompeo told the Afghan negotiation team. "I'd be most interested in getting your thoughts on how to increase the likelihood of successful outcome I know we share."
Fawzia Koofi, one of the negotiators of the Afghan government, said they requested Mr. Pompeo to place further pressure on the Taliban to recognize a national cease-fire and not to withdraw U.S. forces too soon, adding that Mr. Pompeo did not answer the issue.
The Taliban also has American Mark Frerichs, a retired Navy diver and civil engineer abducted in Kabul and carried earlier this year to Khost Province. It was uncertain whether Mr. Pompeo addressed Mr. Frerichs' release, 58, during his more than hour-long Taliban meeting.
Though Mr. Pompeo met with Taliban and Afghan government leaders, people in Kabul sifted through the rubble of Saturday's strike.
Tariq Arian, a spokesman for Afghanistan's interior ministry, said 23 rockets had struck downtown Kabul, exploding near, among other areas, a university and shopping center.
Security officials said they had discovered a burning truck in their bed at a distance from where the rockets struck, indicating the vehicle was used to launch the ammunition. In March, the Islamic State used a similar strike, threatening presidential inauguration.
The jihadist party, while in the east of Afghanistan, also managed to execute attacks in Kabul with small cells that mostly collaborate on encrypted messaging apps. The party also targeted Shiite worship sites and communities.
A Taliban spokesman said the party was not involved.
The city's unusual rocket attack came as 10 ministers were confirmed by the Afghan Parliament.
Farid Ahmad Amiri, Slice's famous downtown bakery and coffee shop founder, said he was nearby when the rockets came in.
"It's so traumatic," said Amiri. Security camera video posted on social media shows almost right in front of the bakery, peppering a delivery truck with shrapnel and injuring the workers.
The assault came during a bloody month. In November, at least 163 civilians were killed across the country, according to New York Times reports. Three gunmen attacked Kabul University on Nov. 2, killing at least 22 people, including students.
"Security trust is gone," Mr. Amiri said. "What happens in Kabul's heart? ”
The relentless attacks in Kabul and other cities around the country, including targeted killings, have sown growing mistrust of Afghan citizenship against their government.
Though Afghanistan's senior vice president, Amrullah Saleh, is spearheading a crime crackdown in Kabul, it remains unclear how a truck armed with rockets managed to reach the city and shoot its arsenal in broad daylight.
"Even downtown isn't safe," Mr. Amiri said.