KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban on Tuesday defended their suicide bombing of an international compound in the Afghan capital that killed at least 16 civilians and wounded 119 people, just hours after a U.S. envoy said he and the militant group had reached a deal “in principle” to end America’s longest war.
Angry Kabul residents whose homes were shredded in the explosion climbed over the buckled blast wall and set fire to part of the compound, a frequent Taliban target. Thick smoke rose from the Green Village, home to several foreign organizations and guesthouses, whose location has become a peril to nearby local residents as well.
“People were screaming and saying, ‘My children are trapped in the rubble,'” one witness, Faiz Ahmad, said. A large crater was left in the street.
The Taliban continue such attacks even as a U.S. envoy says the deal with the insurgents needs only the approval of President Trump to become a reality. The accord would include a troop withdrawal that the Taliban already portray as their victory.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that “we understand that peace talks are going on … but they must also understand that we are not weak and if we enter into talks … we enter from a strong position.”
He said the attack was a response to raids by U.S. and Afghan forces on civilians in other parts of the country. While he acknowledged there should be less harm to civilians, he said they should not be living near such an important foreign compound.
Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said some 400 foreigners were rescued after the suicide bomber targeted the compound late Monday. Five other attackers were shot to death by security forces after the suicide bomber detonated a tractor packed with explosives, he said.
The attack occurred just hours after the U.S. envoy briefed the Afghan government on an agreement “in principle” with the Taliban that would see 5,000 U.S. troops withdraw from five bases in the country within 135 days of a final deal. Between 14,000 and 13,000 U.S. troops are in the country today.
The Green Village also was hit by a suicide car bomber in January, again as the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, was visiting the capital to brief the Afghan government on his negotiations with the Taliban on ending nearly 18 years of fighting.
Hours before the Monday attack, Khalilzad showed a draft deal to the Afghan president, declaring that they are “at the threshold of an agreement” after the end of the ninth round of U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar. The agreement needs Trump’s approval.
There was no immediate comment from Khalilzad after the blast, which was strongly condemned by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Shaken Kabul residents questioned whether the Taliban will respect any agreement after foreign troops withdraw from the country.
“This (is) what the Taliban are up to in Afghanistan; totally committed to total destruction. Can they be trusted!!??” presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi tweeted.
The Taliban carry out such attacks even as they appear to be getting what they want in a deal with the United States: a troop withdrawal. The group wants all of the some 20,000 U.S. and NATO troops out of Afghanistan immediately, while the United States seeks a withdrawal in phases that would depend on the Taliban meeting conditions, such as a reduction in violence.
Attacks have surged in recent months, including Taliban assaults on two provincial capitals over the weekend, as the group seeks to strengthen its negotiating position not only with the United States but with the Afghan government in the even more challenging intra-Afghan talks that are meant to follow a U.S.-Taliban deal. The Taliban have rejected talking with the government, dismissing it as a U.S. puppet.
Analysts have warned that some factions of the Taliban might be expressing displeasure with the U.S. deal, though Taliban political leaders at the talks in Qatar have insisted that their tens of thousands of fighters would respect whatever agreement is reached.
The Taliban are at their strongest since the U.S.-led invasion to topple its government after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Taliban control or hold sway over roughly half of Afghanistan.
The United Nations and others say civilians are suffering, often caught in the crossfire as government forces backed by the United States pursue the Taliban with airstrikes and raids. Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest conflict in 2018.
Taliban spokesman Mujahid said that whenever there is a reduction of violence in Afghan cities, the government asserts that the militant group is no longer able to carry out attacks because of stronger Afghan security forces.
“They should realize that they can’t stop the Taliban,” Mujahid said. “Hopefully they must understand that by now.”