U.S. in peace talks with Taliban, Karzai says

June 18, 2011

Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed Saturday for the first time that the Afghan and U.S. governments have begun peace discussions with Taliban insurgents, saying that the talks “have started already” and are “going well,” according to news accounts. He said foreign military forces, “especially the United States,” are “going ahead with these negotiations.”

At the same time, however, Karzai blasted the international governments and forces that have been assisting and defending his government over the past decade.

“The nations of the world which are here in our country are here for their own national interests,” he said, according to the official transcript of his speech to a youth conference at his presidential palace. “They are using our country.”

Karzai’s comments came as three suicide attackers in Afghan army uniforms attacked a nearby police facility in a bustling market district, igniting a three-hour gun battle that killed all three assailants, two policemen and four civilians. A Taliban spokesman quickly asserted the group’s responsibility.

News accounts of the president’s remarks varied, and the official palace version did not include any mention of peace talks. One news agency quoted him as saying talks had gone on “in the course of this year” and that various Taliban emissaries had met with members of the peace council he set up last year to negotiate.

A government spokesman, Hakim Ashur, quoted Karzai as telling the group: “We would like our disgruntled Taliban brothers to come and accept the Afghan constitution, the gains of the past 10 years, democracy and the right of free press and women. Americans support this process and are also involved in the peace process.”

No details were cited on the American role, and U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment. The Washington Post reported last month that administration officials had held several preliminary meetings this spring, in Germany and Qatar, with senior Taliban officials they believed to be close to Afghan Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. Karzai’s comments were the first public confirmation by the Afghan government of what he called “substantial” meetings.

In his comments critical of the international presence in Afghanistan, the president complained that NATO weapons pollute the environment and that foreign aid to Afghanistan amounts to far less than what the foreign forces take away. He also criticized Western forces for killing innocent people in Libya.

“It is just for their national interest that they put our lives under their feet and dishonor the people,” he said.

Karzai has voiced increasing antagonism toward U.S. and NATO forces here, blaming them repeatedly for civilian casualties and suggesting that they are becoming an occupying force. Yet Afghan officials have also expressed concern about Afghan security and stability once U.S. forces begin a withdrawal planned for between now and 2014.

Saturday’s suicide attack on a police station in a crowded area of the capital served as another reminder of the Taliban’s apparent determination to continue spreading terror, even as its leaders entertain initial discussions of peace.

Police officials and witnesses said that just after noon, they saw three young men running through a market toward the police facility. One was shot dead at the entrance gate, and the other two forced their way inside and opened fire. One was shot and killed and the second later blew himself up.

It was the first terrorist assault in downtown Kabul since April 18, when a suicide bomber in army dress penetrated the Ministry of Defense headquarters, killing two soldiers before being shot dead. But Taliban fighters have kept up a drumbeat of attacks across the country, as well as targeting a number of officials in northern Afghanistan for assassination.

“I saw three boys run toward the police station wearing army uniforms. One ran past and the others shouted, ‘Come back, this is the place,’ ” said Omid Ziai, 18, a shopkeeper selling sheets and towels on the next block. “One of them was shot right away, but the others went inside, and there was furious fire for a long time.”

Deputy city police chief Daoud Amin said the attackers who entered the police facility killed two officers and four civilians who were visiting the office. None of the civilians was immediately identified, but another police official said at least one may have been a foreigner.

Other witnesses, including a guard at a nearby bank, described hearing or seeing a rocket land in the immediate area just before the attack, causing a huge explosion and setting numerous shops on fire. The area, one of the busiest shopping centers in the capital, was quickly deserted, with abandoned merchandise scattered across the sidewalks.

The body of one attacker lay outside the police building for several hours amid the noise of the gun battle and the chaos of police and emergency vehicles. A second was brought out later, and both were put in ambulances. Both appeared to be men in their late teens or early 20s and were wearing camouflage uniforms over Muslim robes.

Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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