KABUL, Afghanistan – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Gulf nation of Qatar on Saturday where he met with Afghan and Taliban negotiators trying to break a deadlock in their stalled peace negotiations. It landed in Kabul hours after a deadly missile strike, the latest indication that violence in Afghanistan is still escalating, despite peace talks continuing.
The rocket fire struck the heart of Kabul, killing at least eight people and wounding more than two dozen. The attack early Saturday set off warning sirens that boomed over the diplomatic quarters of the Afghan capital and residents of their morning commute took cover.
Qatar is the final stop in Mr. Pompeo’s diplomacy whirlwind in the final hours of the Trump administration to advance the White House’s foreign policy goals before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office in January. The Pentagon said this week it would cut the number of US troops in Afghanistan by about half – 2,500 from 4,500 by mid-January.
The troop withdrawal has sown precariously among Afghan officials hoping for a policy change under Mr Biden. The Afghan security forces, still reliant on US air strikes, have sought to protect the territory from the Taliban’s recent offensives.
In Doha, where the Afghan peace talks took place, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have been grappling with two major issues for months, and negotiators on both sides have announced in recent days that they are on the verge of a breakthrough.
The United States will “sit on the side and help where we can,” Pompeo told the Afghan negotiating team. “I would be most interested to have your thoughts on how to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome that I know we will share.”
But while Mr Pompeo met with Taliban and Afghan government officials, the people of Kabul sift through the wreckage of Saturday’s attack.
Tariq Arian, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, said 23 rockets hit downtown Kabul and exploded near a university and shopping area, among other places.
Security officials said they found a burning truck with launch tubes in its bed some distance from where the missiles hit, suggesting the vehicle was used to fire the ammunition. The Islamic State demanded recognition for the attack. The group launched a similar attack in March aimed at the inauguration of the president.
A Taliban spokesman said the insurgent group was not involved.
The rare missile attack on the city came when the Afghan parliament held confirmatory votes for 10 ministers.
Farid Ahmad Amiri, manager of the popular bakery and coffee shop in the city center, Slice, said he was nearby when the missiles came in.
“It’s so traumatic,” said Mr Amiri. Surveillance cameras shared on social media showed a rocket impact almost directly outside the bakery, heaped shrapnel on a delivery truck and wounded its employees.
The attack came in a particularly bloody month. At least 163 civilians were killed nationwide in November, according to the New York Times. On November 2, three armed men stormed Kabul University, killing at least 22 people, including many students.
“There is no trust in the security forces,” said Amiri. “How can it happen in the heart of Kabul?”
The relentless attacks, including targeted killings, in Kabul and other cities across the country have resulted in growing distrust of the Afghan citizens in their government.
Although Amrullah Saleh, Senior Vice President of Afghanistan, is leading a crackdown on crime in Kabul, it remains unclear how a vehicle loaded with missiles got into the city in broad daylight and fired its arsenal.
“Not even downtown is safe,” said Mr. Amiri.