The American and Canadian dead included five soldiers and eight civilian contractors. The attack was the latest in a series of spectacular and frequently suicidal assaults in major cities against government and military targets.
In recent weeks, Taliban fighters waged a prolonged gun-and-grenade battle aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and killed a key Afghan peace envoy and former president in a suicide bomb attack.
The shift in Taliban strategy has been driven, in part, by the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops who have pushed insurgent fighters out of their rural havens in the south and made it harder for them to attack front-line U.S. combat forces.
In the wake of Saturday’s attack, U.S. commanders sought to highlight their gains over the past year. Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the bombing was designed “to hide the fact that [the Taliban] are losing territory, support and the will to fight.”
But the attacks in the previously safe capital also highlight the Taliban’s resilience at a time when the United States is beginning a gradual drawdown of its forces in the country and trying to press forward with stalled peace talks.
U.S. officials in recent months have held preliminary talks with the Taliban and the affiliated Haqqani network, both of which operate out of sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The American strategy envisions continued military pressure combined with a sustained push to jump-start reconciliation talks and grow Afghanistan’s army and police force. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week described the approach as “fight, talk, build.”
Saturday’s suicide bombing is likely to bolster critics who have insisted that the prospects of reconciliation with the Taliban remain remote. In testimony Thursday, Clinton acknowledged meeting with a representative of the Haqqani network, which has been behind most of the high-profile Kabul attacks and has links to Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Asked how the network had responded, she said that the answer was “an attack on our embassy.” A week later, a suicide bomber killed former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said it is unrealistic to expect that the Taliban would scale back attacks in advance of serious peace negotiations. “What do you expect?” the official said. “They are in a war. We are aggressively trying to kill Taliban and Haqqani [fighters], and they are trying to kill us.”