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What's behind latest Taliban attack on Kabul?

The latest Taliban attack on Kabul comes amid new Afghanistan government efforts to lure militants away from the insurgency.

By Staff Writer / January 18, 2010

An Afghan policeman stands in front of the shopping mall where Taliban gunmen battled security forces in Kabul on Monday. Taliban gunmen launched a brazen assault in the center of Kabul with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at several locations.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters

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New Delhi

Taliban gunmen attacked central Kabul on Monday, delivering a deadly response to new efforts by the Afghan government to get insurgents to defect.

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Explosions rocked the capital as two of the attackers detonated suicide vests. Gun battles raged for more than five hours near the gates of the presidential palace, other ministries, and inside a shopping complex. So far, according to preliminary reports, five people have died and nearly 40 were wounded, while security forces killed seven attackers.

The insurgency has felt pressure from several angles in recent weeks. The United States doubled down with more troops, and is signaling a major new offensive in the south. The Afghan government, meanwhile, has begun talking up lavish new incentives of jobs and training for defectors. As for the Afghan people, which provide the oxygen for any insurgency, a poll last week found public support rebounding for President Hamid Karzai.

Trying to short-circuit Karzai outreach

The attack can be read as a Taliban effort at “giving a negative answer to the outreach of Mr. Karzai, threatening Afghanistan before the London Conference, and, of course, showing their power even when polls say Afghanistan is getting on the right track,” says Waliullah Rahmani, a security analyst with the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

Monday’s incident marked the largest assault on the capital since gunmen stormed a guesthouse in October, killing at least 11 people including UN staff.

These sorts of attacks underline the continuing ineffectiveness of Afghan police tasked with manning entry points into the capital, says Mr. Rahmani.

“Today I was just watching it from TV and I really thought how vulnerable we are living in Kabul with this weak government,” says Rahmani.

That said, he adds, Afghan security forces appeared to shut down the actual attack.

Taliban claim responsibility

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, telling the Associated Press that they had sent 20 armed militants to attack the heart of the city, including the presidential palace. The number of attackers has not yet been confirmed, and search operations for any remaining gunmen continued at press time.

The coming of these Taliban to the outskirts of the presidential palace was not what Karzai had in mind when his spokesman Waheed Omer told reporters on Sunday, “We are ready to negotiate with anyone…. Whoever comes over is welcome.”

Mr. Omer announced a forthcoming effort to woo Taliban to lay down their arms, and promised it would go further than past failed efforts.

“The mistakes we have committed before have been considered in developing this new plan,” he said. “We have not done enough.”

Adding pressure to the Taliban, speculation is growing of a rapprochement between the government and a key insurgent commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

“In the past year or so Hekmatyar, a charismatic Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist, has begun to raise his profile, granting several interviews with major news outlets and stepping up the tempo of his political propaganda," wrote two analysts from the International Crisis Group, Nick Grono and Candace Rondeaux, in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe. "He has put a lot of effort into restyling himself in a more acceptable guise - as a strong moderate fundamentalist with Afghanistan’s best Islamic interest at heart,”

The Afghan parliament on Saturday confirmed as minister of economy the leader of a party with historical ties to Hekmatyar.

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