The United States has opened peace talks with the Taliban, it was announced yesterday, just hours before insurgents killed nine people in a suicide attack at a police station in Afghanistan.
The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, told a press conference in Kabul that the negotiations were being carried out in a "brotherly" atmosphere. "Talks with the Taliban have started," he said. "The talks are going well. Foreign forces, especially the United States, are carrying out the talks themselves."
The US declined to comment on Mr Karzai's claims, but it is the first suggestion that Washington has put into action a plan to negotiate with the Taliban ahead of the withdrawal of 97,000 troops due to begin next month. Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, suggested earlier this month that political talks were on the agenda, proposed in the hope that Taliban fighters could be encouraged to break away from an alliance with al-Qa'ida.
The British government said it welcomed attempts to speak with rebels, but put the onus on the Afghans. A Ministry of Defence statement said: "We support Afghan-led efforts to reconcile and reintegrate members of the insurgency who are prepared to renounce violence, cut links with terrorist groups and accept the constitution."
Yet just a couple of hours after Mr Karzai's comments, three Taliban members attacked a police station close to government buildings and the presidential palace in Kabul. Four officers and five civilians were killed, the Afghan Interior Ministry said. Disguised in Afghan army uniforms, two of the assailants were shot after they began firing at the police. The third died after detonating a bomb hidden under his vest. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message to the Associated Press. It was one of the most significant attacks since the killing of Osama bin Laden in a US raid in Pakistan at the start of last month.
The latest developments came as Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, said he would block aid payments to Afghanistan owing to concerns over the crisis at the Kabul Bank, where reserves were depleted by millions of pounds in unexplained insider loans. The International Monetary Fund has ruled there are no adequate plans in place yet to revive the bank. "We cannot disburse British taxpayers' money ... until we are clear that the necessary safeguards are in place," Mr Mitchell said.
The US wants to hand over control to Afghan security forces by 2014 but, as The IoS revealed last week, there remain serious concerns over the ability of Afghan police and army units to function without coalition soldiers or military advisers alongside them.
Just one Afghan army unit is currently rated as "independent", but no police units are considered to have reached the same stage of competence so far. A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said: "We are committed to helping the Afghan people to create a stable society ... We anticipate that many of the institutions will be capable of executing functions with minimal oversight by 2013."
Third soldier killed
A British soldier was killed on patrol in Afghanistan yesterday, the 374th to die since operations began in 2001.
The announcement came just as the Ministry of Defence named the two soldiers who died in Helmand province on Thursday. They were Corporal Lloyd Newell, right, of the Parachute Regiment, the father of a nine-week-old daughter, and 27-year-old Craftsman Andrew Found, who had two sons..
An MoD spokesman said of Corporal Newell: "He personified the great British paratrooper – selfless, humble, cheerful and utterly reliable. He was devoted to his wife and their nine-week-old daughter."
Craftsman Found, from Whitby, North Yorkshire, was killed in a roadside bomb blast. His wife Samantha said: "You were my rock and my hero and always will be."