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In Afghanistan, resurgent Taliban takes toll; more than 100 die in attacks in the past week

Afghan men look at a damaged car Saturday at the site of a suicide bomb explosion at a bank. (Allauddin Khan/AP)

A suicide bombing Saturday outside a bank in the southern city of Kandahar, which killed six people and wounded at least 24, was the latest in a grisly spurt of attacks by Taliban insurgents that have killed more than 100 people across a half-dozen provinces in the past week.

The attacks included the firebombing of more than 50 tank trucks in a coalition convoy in far western Farah province, the storming of a U.S.-Polish army base in Ghazni province, a suicide attack at a funeral in northern Kunduz province, and the kidnapping and killing of six U.N. workers in Herat province.

A Taliban Web site claimed that the rash of bombings, ambushes and killings constituted the most successful run of attacks by the insurgency in years. The statement did not elaborate on the motive behind the surge, but analysts attributed it to several factors, from the repeated breakdowns of peace talks to the recent political tumult in Egypt.

“The Taliban would stop fighting if they had more confidence in the Americans and the peace process,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban diplomat who is a member of the government’s High Peace Council. “Now their policy is to continue the insurgency. When things fail in this world, martyrdom in battle is their fallback.”

Taliban leaders have long dismissed the Afghan government as a Western puppet and insisted on negotiating directly with the United States. As Western troops began to withdraw from the country this year, the insurgents launched attacks on foreign targets, including the International Red Cross, a U.N. migration-aid agency and an Indian consulate.

Three months ago, hopes of restarting peace talks rose briefly. With American encouragement, the Taliban set up an office in Qatar that was to be used for meetings with Afghan and foreign officials. But 48 hours after it opened in June, the office was shut down amid a melodramatic dispute about whether the group could display the flag and name of its former regime. The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

Since the debacle in Qatar, there has been a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering to bring some Taliban leaders back onto the peace track. One moderate insurgent official, Agha Jan Motasim, spent weeks in Kabul as a low-profile guest of the government while U.S. and other officials reportedly attempted to split his faction off from the hard-line leadership of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and persuade Motasim to open a new peace office, in Turkey or Saudi Arabia. But that effort, too, apparently failed and Motasim left Afghanistan.

Another attempt was Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s trip last week to Pakistan, where he spent two days meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other officials. Karzai asked for their help in persuading Taliban leaders to negotiate, in part by releasing some senior Taliban prisoners, but he left with no public signs of progress. Immediately afterward, the latest rash of attacks erupted.

In a statement Saturday, Karzai appeared to accuse Pakistan of being behind the latest attacks, saying the Taliban should “stop taking orders from foreigners.” Karzai has previously blamed Pakistan’s security agencies for fomenting Taliban aggression in an effort to weaken the Afghan state.

But independent analysts here said Pakistan has lost much of its influence on the Taliban. They said Taliban leaders are more ambitious and worldly than when they ruled Afghanistan in isolation for five years. Now they see themselves as regional players whose fortunes are intertwined with those of other Muslim movements and countries.

Several analysts said Taliban leaders were deeply affected by the political upheaval that has engulfed Egypt in recent weeks. They said the July 3 coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the Egyptian presidency and the ensuing bloody crackdown on his religious supporters were seen by the Taliban as further proof of false U.S. promises to back democracy and power-sharing in the Muslim world.

Just as Taliban peace feelers are now largely aimed at Washington, analysts said, so is the latest spate of insurgent violence — even as it takes mounting numbers of lives among the insurgents’ fellow Muslims and countrymen.

“The Taliban are not ready to talk anymore. They want to show that, with 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, they can still conduct operations almost anywhere,” said Waheed Mojda, an analyst here who maintains contacts with the Taliban. “This is a show of power so people can imagine what will happen when all the Western forces are gone.”

Pamela Constable covers immigration issues and immigrant communities. A former foreign correspondent for the Post based in Kabul and New Delhi, she also reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.



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