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The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four American troops and the Afghan government announced it was suspending negotiations with the US on an extended troop agreement today, casting a double shadow over peace talks between the US and the Taliban scheduled to begin tomorrow.
Sky News reports that the Taliban acknowledged it was behind a rocket attack last night on Bagram Air Base, launched just hours after the US announced it would be holding peace talks with the Islamist group on Thursday. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: "Last night two big rockets were launched at Bagram which hit the target. Four soldiers are dead and six others are wounded. The rockets caused a major fire."
A senior defense official confirmed to NBC News that the four killed were Americans.
Separately, the US and Afghanistan had been discussing an extended presence for American troops in the country past 2014, when NATO forces are set to withdraw from all combat operations in the country. But in a statement released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, the government said today that it was suspending those talks "in view of the contradiction between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the peace process."
Although the initial statement did not elaborate on the contradiction, a senior Afghan official told Reuters that the issue was over the "official identity" being given to the Taliban, who opened an office in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday.
"The Doha office gave the Taliban an official identity, something we didn't want," the Afghan official said.
"The U.S. officials told us the office will be used to move peace talks forward, but not to give them an identity.
"The Taliban's flag and the banner of the Islamic Emirate was something we did not expect at the office," the official said, referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban used during their rule.
The BBC's Jonathan Beale, however, reports that the real issue is anger at Afghanistan not being included in the US-Taliban talks.
President Karzai clearly feels a sense of anger and betrayal over the way the US made that announcement. He thought there would be a commitment from the Taliban to engage with the Afghan government, to recognise the constitution and to renounce violence.
None of those promises were made. Hopes that these talks with the Taliban will go very far must be fading fast. Without the involvement of the Afghan government there is no peace process.
The deadly Bagram attack and the Afghan government's anger cast a pall over the planned Taliban talks, which US officials had been optimistic about. The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the US was cautiously upbeat over a Taliban statement "committing to two principles that the United States had been calling on the Taliban to publicly adopt: One is simply that the Taliban support an Afghan peace process, while the second is that they oppose the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries" -- the latter meant by the US as a reference to sheltering groups like Al Qaeda.
But the Monitor adds that even if Taliban negotiators are on board with such principles, that commitment may not extend to fighters on the ground -- a concern underscored by the Bagram attack last night.
Senior Afghan officials involved in reconciliation efforts said in comments to the Monitor last month that signals from Taliban leaders continued to be mixed and “confused,” with some factions suggesting an interest in pursuing a peace process while others demonstrated a prevailing interest in pursuing the summer fighting season and even planning ahead for efforts to disrupt next April’s national elections.
Indeed, one of the biggest potential challenges to any peace process will be the same one that has long been present, some regional experts say: the divisions in the Taliban’s vision for the way forward. What happens if the Taliban’s political leadership based in Pakistan signs on to a peace accord, only to have military leaders in the field reject the peace and vow to keep fighting?