As Kabul Sees More Bloodshed, Karzai Drops Another Bombshell

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John Wendle for TIME

Afghan National Police and a shopkeeper stand in front of shops shuttered due to a Taliban suicide attack meters away on the gate of a police station meters away and hold down a sheet covering the body of a young man, possibly a civilian victim of the fighting.

The streets of central Kabul's bustling open-air Mandavi market was cleared of shopkeepers and shoppers early this afternoon after Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a large police station on the area's main street. The three attackers killed five civilians, three policemen and an intelligence officer when they breached the gate of the compound and opened fire, the Interior Ministry confirmed in a statement, according to Afghan news sources agencies. The insurgents were killed when the police returned fire.

The attack came just hours after President Hamid Karzai addressed a youth conference in the capital, denying reports that his government was in negotiations with the Taliban and, instead, suggesting that Washington was secretly in talks with the Islamist militants. "From the government side, we don't have any negotiations with them [the Taliban], but the important part is negotiations with the Pakistanis, which are very important for us," Karzai said, foreign and Afghan media reported. "The negotiations have started with those people and, God willing, these talks will continue. But foreign military forces and especially America are continuing this process," Karzai said. His speech was loaded with criticism of American and NATO actions within the country. Its apparent bullishness seemed to contradict statements Karzai had made in the past regarding face-to-face dialogue with the architects of the Taliban insurgency.

The US has never openly confirmed such negotiations and the Taliban have outright denied their existence. Karzai regularly takes a harder-line concerning both the presence of foreign military forces and the activities of the Taliban when speaking to his domestic audience. A U.S. embassy official in Kabul offered Washington's longstanding talking points when speaking to Reuters: "We must help create conditions necessary to enable a political settlement among the Afghan people. This includes reconciling those insurgents who are willing to renounce al Qaeda, forsake violence and adhere to the Afghan constitution." It is unclear what Karzai's speech today will mean to US-Afghan relations, but after a series of recent statements by Karzai — one tearfully demanding the cessation of NATO air strikes in the country — it is clear that the relationship between the two countries is becoming increasingly strained. Debate continues to swirl in the US over President Barack Obama's expected announcement next month about how many troops will be withdrawn as part of a plan to send troops home and hand over security to Afghan forces by 2014.

But today in the Afghan capital, few were thinking of US-Afghan relations — rather focusing on the grim security situation at hand. Shortly after the attack, the bodies of two of those killed in the fighting were left lying in the street as police tried to restore calm. The body and face of one of the attackers, a young man, were torn with bullet wounds and the Afghan National Army fatigues he had used to blend in and breach the compound were soaked in drying blood. The second body — possibly a civilian — lay halfway up the street, just near the entrance of the police compound, covered by a sheet. Afghan news agencies and Afghan journalists on the scene said civilians were killed when police returned fire.

Bursts of machine gun fire and single shots continued to crack and echo off the taller buildings and mosques in the center of the city, sending pedestrians ducking and running, as police in pickup trucks mounted with machineguns cordoned off a large area packed with government ministries, business centers and banks and tried to bring order to a chaotic scene. As ambulances finally reached the area and carried off the dead and wounded — which included two policemen and ten civilians — police were already washing large pools of blood out of the station and into the road.

"I was cleaning a vehicle when armed men shot two policemen manning the police station gate and then entered the building," said Nazifullah, an employee at the Kabul Revenue Department, nearby, Afghan news agencies reported. Other reports said one of the attackers detonated a suicide vest at the gate, but minimal damage appeared to suggest the insurgents had used rifles in the assault. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attacks, Afghan media reported.

The president's statements and the gun battle took place just weeks before limited foreign troop withdrawals are due to begin in selected provinces and cities around the war torn country. This most recent attack was carried out in central Kabul — one of the areas that will see a full security handover to Afghan forces in July — and should cause both foreign politicians and Afghan residents of the capital to question whether the country is ready for the coming security transition and the troop drawdown Afghanistan's President has long sought.