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Rockets strike in Kabul as Mike Pompeo plans to meet with the Taliban



KABUL, Afghanistan – Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo visited the Gulf nation of Qatar on Saturday, where he met with Afghan and Taliban negotiators trying to break a stalemate in their halted peace talks. He landed hours after a deadly rocket attack in Kabul, the latest sign that violence is brewing throughout Afghanistan, even as peace talks continue.

The rocket barricaded itself in the heart of Kabul, killing at least eight people and wounding more than two dozen. The attack early on Saturday triggered warning sirens that erupted over the diplomatic neighborhoods of the Afghan capital, and residents on their morning commute took cover.

Qatar is the last stop on Mr Pompeo’s whirlwind of diplomacy in the waning hours of the Trump administration and looks forward to pushing for the White House foreign policy goal before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. joins in January. The Pentagon said this week that it would reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by approx. half – 2,500, down from 4,500 in mid-January.

The withdrawal of troops is sown uncertainly among Afghan officials hoping for a policy change under Mr. Biden. Afghan security forces, still dependent on US airstrikes, have been fighting to defend territory against the latest Taliban offensives.

In Doha, which has hosted the Afghan peace talks, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have been fighting over two main points for several months, and negotiators from both sides have in recent days said they are close to a breakthrough.

The United States will “sit on the sidelines and help where we can,” Pompeo told the Afghan negotiating team. “I would be most interested in getting your thoughts on how we can increase the likelihood of a successful outcome, which I know we share.”

But as Mr Pompeo meets with the Taliban and Afghan government officials, people in Kabul are seeping through the wreckage of Saturday’s attack.

Tariq Arian, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, said 23 rockets had hit downtown Kabul and exploded near a university and a shopping district, among other places.

Security officials said they had found a burning truck with tubes in the bed at a distance from where the rockets hit, suggesting the vehicle was used to fire the ammunition. The Islamic State claimed credit for the attack. The group used a similar attack in March, targeting the president’s inauguration.

A Taliban spokesman said the rebel group was not involved.

The rare rocket attack on the city came as the Afghan parliament held confirmation votes for 10 ministers.

Farid Ahmad Amiri, a manager of the popular bakery and coffee shop in the center, Slice, said he had been nearby when the rockets came in.

“It’s so traumatic,” Mr Amiri said. Security camera footage shared on social media showed a rocket impact almost directly in front of the bakery, which peppered a van with shrapnel and injured its employees.

The attack came during a particularly bloody month. At least 163 civilians were killed across the country in November, according to data collected 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 security forces is gone,” Amiri said. “How can this happen in the heart of Kabul?”

The relentless attacks, including targeted killings, in Kabul and other cities across the country have sown growing distrust of Afghanistan’s citizenship towards their government.

Although Afghanistan’s senior vice president, Amrullah Saleh, is spearheading a fierce fight against crime in Kabul, it is still unclear how a vehicle loaded with rockets managed to enter the city and shoot its arsenal in daylight.

“Not even the center is safe,” Amiri said.


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