KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday visited the Gulf nation of Qatar, where he met with Afghan and Taliban negotiators who are trying to break a deadlock in their stalled peace negotiations. He landed hours after a deadly rocket attack in Kabul, the latest evidence of the violence spiraling across Afghanistan.
The rocket barrage slammed into the heart of Kabul, killing at least eight people and wounding more than two dozen. The attack early on Saturday set off warning sirens that blared across the diplomatic quarters of the Afghan capital, and residents on their morning commute took cover.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamic State announcements. The group is seen by many experts as one of the primary spoilers for any future peace in Afghanistan.
Qatar is the latest stop on Mr. Pompeo’s whirlwind lap of diplomacy in the waning hours of the Trump administration, looking to push forward White House foreign policy objectives before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office in January. The Pentagon said this week that it would reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by nearly half — to 2,500, down from 4,500 by mid-January.
The troop withdrawal has sown uncertainty among Afghan officials, who are hoping for a policy change under Mr. Biden. Afghan security forces, still reliant on U.S. airstrikes, have struggled to defend territory from recent Taliban offensives.
In Doha, which has been hosting the peace talks, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have been wrestling over two main sticking points for months, and negotiators from both sides have said in recent days that they are close to a breakthrough.
The Afghan government and the Taliban have been stuck on which school of Islamic thought to use for resolving disputes during the negotiations, and if the Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal would be referenced during them.
The United States will “sit on the side and help where we can,” Mr. Pompeo said to the Afghan negotiating team. “I would be most interested in getting your thoughts on how we can increase the probability of successful outcome that I know we share.”
Fawzia Koofi, one of the Afghan government negotiators, said they had asked Mr. Pompeo to put more pressure on the Taliban to accept a nationwide cease-fire and to not withdraw U.S. troops so quickly, adding that Mr. Pompeo did not address the issue.
The Taliban is still holding the American Mark Frerichs, a former Navy diver and civil engineer who was kidnapped in Kabul and taken to Khost Province earlier this year. It was unclear if Mr. Pompeo discussed the release of Mr. Frerichs, 58, during his more than hourlong meeting with the Taliban.
While Mr. Pompeo was meeting with Taliban and Afghan government officials, people in Kabul were sifting through the wreckage from Saturday’s attack.
Tariq Arian, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s interior ministry, said that 23 rockets had hit downtown Kabul, exploding near a university and a shopping area, among other places.
Security officials said they had found a burning truck with launch tubes in its bed at a distance from where the rockets hit, suggesting that the vehicle was used to fire the munitions. The Islamic State used a similar attack in March, targeting the presidential inauguration.
The extremist group, though militarily contained in Afghanistan’s east, has still managed to conduct attacks in Kabul with small cells that often coordinate on encrypted messaging applications. The group has often attacked Shiite places of worship and neighborhoods.
A Taliban spokesman said that the insurgent group was not involved.
The rare rocket attack on the city came as the Afghan Parliament held confirmation votes for 10 ministers.
Farid Ahmad Amiri, a manager of the popular downtown bakery and coffee shop Slice, said he had been nearby when the rockets came in.
“It is so traumatizing,” Mr. Amiri said. Security camera footage shared on social media showed a rocket impact almost directly in front of the bakery, peppering a delivery van with shrapnel and wounding its employees.
The attack came during a particularly bloody month. At least 163 civilians have been killed across the country in November, according to data compiled by The New York Times. On Nov. 2, three gunmen stormed Kabul University, killing at least 22 people, many of them students.
“The trust in security forces is gone,” Mr. Amiri said. “How can it happen in the heart of Kabul?”
The relentless attacks, including targeted killings, in Kabul and other cities across the country, have sown increasing distrust in Afghanistan’s citizenry toward their government.
Although Afghanistan’s senior vice president, Amrullah Saleh, is spearheading a crackdown on crime in Kabul, it remains unclear how a vehicle loaded with rockets managed to enter the city and fire its arsenal in broad daylight.
“Not even the downtown is safe,” Mr. Amiri said.
Orignially published in NYT.