Kabul awoke to the sounds of gunfire and deafening explosions on Tuesday morning. The epicenter of the attack was one of the secured zones in the capital’s presidential palace.
According to news reports, a group of suicide bombers attacked the Ariana Hotel, which houses the CIA’s office and Presidential Palace – both located at close quarters and heavily fortified. The New York Times writes that the attackers used at least two Land Cruisers similar to those used by international troops, fake badges and vehicle passes, which allowed at least one of them to slip into the heavily guarded area.
The attack, which began at 6:30 am continued for two hours. The city police chief, General Ayoub Salangi, said all the attackers had been killed and the city had returned to business as usual, although embassies and the Nato coalition remained locked down.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced via text message: "A number of martyrs attacked the presidential palace, defence ministry and the Ariana Hotel."
In another incident in the southern province of Kandahar, ten people – mostly women and children – lost their lives when a roadside bomb went off.
This is the fifth terrorist attack on Kabul and the first major one since the Taliban agreed to come to the negotiating table in Doha a month ago. For many the Taliban’s persistence with continuing its offensive even after joining the peace process sends a mixed signal.
"Besides political talks the Taliban will continue attacking. They have not agreed to any kind of ceasefire. So it’s not surprising,” Habib Khan Tatakhil, a Kabul-based journalist told The Diplomat. “They said at the beginning of the Spring Offensive that there would be more attacks on Kabul this year."
However, for Fawzia Koofi, a female parliamentarian and a presidential candidate for next year’s elections, the Taliban attack was very confusing and opportunistic.
Speaking with The Diplomat, the lawmaker expressed her anguish at the current state of affairs. She said she blames the Taliban for “misusing the political privileges it has gotten by opening an office in Doha. The office is in a very rich nation. It has given the armed insurgent many political privileges that they have used as leverage for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.”
She added, “It is psychologically affecting the lives of the people and creating confusion at a time when there is a need for clarity.”
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban ambassador to UN, holds another opinion about the attacks. Mujahid sees the incidents as a “manifestation of the Taliban’s unhappiness about the recent events in Doha.”
In a telephone interview with The Diplomat the former Taliban and a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, said that the “misunderstanding between different players in the peace talks has compelled the Taliban to indulge in this kind of attack. They are frustrated and want to assert themselves and show their power to attack at will anywhere.”
In the midst of the chaos and confusion, the question arises: What happens to the nascent peace process that hangs in the balance?
Mujahid believes that “there can only be progress in Doha when talks are handled prudently and wisely. All parties must take each other into confidence. They don't have to be suspicious of each other.”
Putting it in the bigger picture, he added, “They should all keep in mind that the peace process is for the benefit of the oppressed people of Afghanistan. The issue of the Taliban’s name or symbol should not be a matter of contention. I used the same title and symbol when I was the Taliban ambassador to the UN. The U.S. and other countries never recognized it, but it never created a problem.”
Habib opines that “there are so many conspiracy theories regarding peace in Afghanistan. Some see a conspiracy on the part of the U.S. and Pakistan to pressure Kabul to accept the terms and conditions of strategic talks, while others see it as an attempt to undermine the government.”
He continued, “However, people are generally happy. After all, the Taliban have agreed to talk for the first time. So they see a ray of hope."
But Koofi, a vocal critic of the Taliban and the first woman Vice President of the National Assembly, does not share this optimism.
“The strategy adopted by the Taliban is not going to work,” she said. “There should not be any doubt in anybody’s mind that the peace process cannot be successful unless the Taliban abandons violence, severs itself from Al Qaeda and is honest in its approach. Their present strategy will bring some Taliban to power, but it will not bring peace in the country.”
While Tuesday's aggression in Kabul may have been a victory for the Taliban on the propaganda front, it has not dampened zeal for the peace process. News reports suggest that both the Afghan and U.S. governments have decided to go ahead with negotiations with the Taliban despite the attack.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed in a video conference on Tuesday to go forward with the peace process.
The development came after Karzai warned that the Taliban could not open an office in Qatar and at the same time continue to kill people in Afghanistan.
This reflects the complexity of the problem facing Afghanistan today. The nation must fight against violence and pursue peace simultaneously.