Meanwhile, the top U.S. peace negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, returned to Qatar on Thursday to meet with Taliban officials after the latest round of talks there had already ended, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Both unexpected moves came as Afghan society reeled from a surge of Taliban attacks that erupted over the past week in Kabul and elsewhere, even as Khalilzad and other U.S. officials declared that a peace deal was imminent. The attacks left scores of people dead and residents anxious, confused and angry.
There is particular concern that insurgents will target Shiite communities in Kabul, which are observing Muharram, a solemn period for Shiites. Militants from the Taliban and Islamic State have attacked mosques, shrines and other Shiite gathering places during Muharram in previous years.
“Everyone is scared now. Nobody wants to go to work or send their kids to school because there might be more explosions,” said Kamal Khan, 32, a mason who was sharing tea with his brothers on a blanket outside a hospital Friday morning. They were waiting to visit an elderly cousin who was blinded in a suicide bombing in Jalalabad this week.
“We have all been hoping for peace, but the Taliban want to show they are strong by killing,” Khan said. “We would like to have elections, but people will be too afraid to vote. Everything is stuck now. We have lost our way.”
After years of conflict, Afghans have become used to the dreadful routine of urban violence — the gruesome wounds inflicted by explosives, the hastily dug graves. But the growing anticipation of peace, and plans for a presidential election later this month, had allowed people to imagine a life without war for the first time in decades.
Now, conflicting signals from Taliban and U.S. officials, a fierce battle among the Afghan political elite about who will negotiate later with the insurgents, and doubts about whether an election should be held at all have left many Afghans perplexed and anguished.
“This is a very unsettling moment for Afghans. They are suffering through stepped-up insurgent violence while Washington tries to finalize a deal that many regard as a surrender,” said Michael Kugelman, a regional expert at the Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The Afghan political leadership seems indecisive and divided, at a critical moment with elections just a few weeks away. This is a high-grade mess.”
One telling sign of Afghan frustrations came Monday, after insurgents bombed a secure compound for foreign contractors and visitors on the outskirts of Kabul. A spokesman for the Taliban said it was targeting “foreign occupiers,” but most of the 16 people killed were Afghan civilians. A Romanian diplomat was among the dead. Enraged local residents surrounded the site, shouting that the foreigners should leave because they are a magnet for attacks.
On Thursday, a car bomb explosion near the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan intelligence headquarters here killed 10 Afghan civilians and two NATO service members, one of them an American. The Taliban also launched offensives in the far western province of Farah and the northeastern province of Baghlan, a reminder of the reach of its fighting capacity.
Afghan officials have expressed serious concerns about the proposed deal, saying it does not offer enough assurance that Afghan civilians and security forces will be protected if U.S. troops withdraw as agreed. The new spate of violence has deepened that concern, and appeared to have prompted Ghani’s plans to visit Washington.
“Seeking peace with this group that is still pursuing the killing of innocent people is meaningless,” Ghani said Thursday.
Adding to the chaos, the head of the Afghan intelligence agency was forced to step down Thursday after the day’s Kabul bombing and an Afghan security raid in Jalalabad that killed four brothers and aroused local protests.
Critics have accused Ghani of abetting political turmoil by insisting on holding the election under dangerous conditions in an effort to win a second term. Others accused his government of failing to plan for Afghan talks with Taliban leaders that are supposed to come after a U.S. deal.
Conflicting U.S. statements have also heightened public confusion and worry about the proposed deal, which has been negotiated in secret. Khalilzad has painted it as a positive step, and President Trump has stressed the urgency of removing U.S. forces from the country. But a key Republican senator and a group of former U.S. diplomats have warned against a hasty withdrawal. The diplomats said Afghanistan could collapse into civil war unless some troops remain and a stronger deal is signed.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted Saturday evening that the group had held meetings with Khalilzad, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and U.S. Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
“Both meetings were positive and well attended,” he wrote.
In the absence of U.S. government openness about the deal, alarmist rumors have spread across Afghan society. People are worried that thousands of Taliban prisoners may be released, that the deal will not spell out the rights of women, and especially that the Taliban will wait until thousands of U.S. troops are withdrawn and then renege on its promises with impunity.
“Everything that’s happening is a mystery,” said Abdul Azam, a telephone company worker. “Do we know if the Taliban doing the negotiations are the real Taliban group in power? We hear the president making speeches and saying everything will be fine, but it’s not. People are confused and afraid.”
In west Kabul, where many Shiite Muslims and minority ethnic Hazaras live, the fear is palpable and specific.
Omid Hajji Agha, 19, said mosques in the area were “full during Muharram in the past, but not anymore. There is no security here. Everyone talks about peace, but peace talks are cheap words. Still the fighting continues.”
Sharif Hassan and John Hudson contributed to this report.