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Mortar Fire Punctures Afghan President’s Speech on Offer of Cease-Fire

KABUL, Afghanistan — More than two dozen mortar rounds landed in Kabul on Tuesday as the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, was addressing the nation under the trees of his palace about a cease-fire he had offered the Taliban.

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Mujib Mashal
Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — More than two dozen mortar rounds landed in Kabul on Tuesday as the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, was addressing the nation under the trees of his palace about a cease-fire he had offered the Taliban.

Flanked by his security ministers after finishing a prayer to mark the beginning of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, Ghani braved the shells exploding nearby to once again plead for an end to the 17-year war, which is taking lives in record numbers. His ministers craned their necks to peer up at the sound of each blast.

“We announced a cease-fire, but conditioned on the fact that it would be a mutual cease-fire,” Ghani said. “This was the consensus of our people.”

Although the mortar shelling was claimed by the Islamic State, hopes that the Taliban would reciprocate in a cease-fire dimmed on Tuesday as the group remained quiet on Ghani’s offer.

There was, however, movement on peace efforts on a different front. Russia announced on Tuesday that it had invited all parties to the conflict to talks in Moscow on Sept. 4. Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that the Taliban had accepted the invitation, although a spokesman for the group said he had to consult its leadership before commenting.

Any Moscow talks involving the Taliban would be a remarkable display of Russia’s recent warming to a group it has labeled as terrorist since 2003. Coming at a time when U.S. officials are trying to build momentum around separate talks in Qatar, the announcement also raises questions as to whether Russia is seeking to disrupt American leadership.

Hashmat Stanikzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police, said that around 9 a.m. militants had started firing from the district behind the presidential palace. Many shells landed near the palace, with some reports suggesting that two even landed inside. Others struck the diplomatic quarter, which contains Western embassies and the NATO coalition’s headquarters.

Afghan forces blocked the areas where the militants were holed up, even using helicopters to target them. Local news media reports suggested that the militants had used a truck to transport mortars to fire on different parts of the city.

Nine insurgents fired around 30 mortar rounds from two locations, according to a statement from Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesman for the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, who added that Afghan forces had dealt with the threat quickly. Four of the nine insurgents were killed, he said, and the other five surrendered to Afghan forces.

It is rare that assailants in such attacks are detained. Afghan officials hoped the men in their custody, as well as the communication equipment seized, will help bring clarity to whether recent urban attacks claimed by the Islamic State can be traced to the same networks that operate for the Taliban and the Haqqani network, the lethal arm of the insurgency.

“If they are thinking the rocket attack will keep Afghans down, they are wrong,” Ghani said.

Since a rare, overlapping cease-fire two months ago brought Afghans a brief bit of quiet, Ghani and his international partners have been working toward a second lull in the fighting around Eid al-Adha. When the Taliban assaulted a major city just 90 miles from Kabul, it put the fate of a second cease-fire in limbo. Ghani went ahead with an offer, but this time conditioned on the group’s reciprocating.

The Taliban have remained quiet on the offer. Instead, they abducted more than 100 Afghans on the highway in the north of the country Monday. By the end of the day, they had released most, except for 21 who were reportedly members of security or government forces.

In private, Taliban officials said they were unlikely to declare a cease-fire this time, largely because it had been difficult to contain their fighters during the last one. Many of them even traveled to cities and took part in celebrations, suggesting to the Afghan government that the insurgents are as tired of the war as officials are.

Haji Mullah Hameedi, a Taliban military commander in the south, said, “We have not received any message from the leadership about a cease-fire.”

In recent months, a strong push has been made to end the Afghan conflict by getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. U.S. diplomats met with Taliban officials in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, where the insurgents keep a political office, in the hopes of shifting their long-held condition that they would negotiate only with the Americans first.

Now, Moscow is increasing its own involvement, and it has reached out to the Taliban.

“We have never concealed the fact that we maintain contacts with Taliban members — they are part of Afghan society,” said Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at a news conference in the southern Russian resort city of Sochi.

The Taliban rejected a similar invitation to talks in April 2017, according to Russian news media reports.

New Moscow talks would include a number of nearby countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The United States was also invited, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Heidi Hattenbach, a State Department spokeswoman, said the Americans would not attend. “As a matter of principle, we support Afghan-owned and led initiatives to advance a peace settlement in Afghanistan,” she said. Officially, Russia has given various reasons for its outreach in Afghanistan. They include protecting Russian citizens there — although it is unclear there are many — and countering the spread of Islamic militancy.

But President Vladimir Putin has made no secret that he wants to challenge U.S. leadership wherever possible in the world. Russian efforts have included supporting political organizations in Europe critical of the United States, dispatching the country’s military to Syria to prop up President Bashar Assad, and stepping up its involvement in the Mideast and Africa.

Barnett R. Rubin, a scholar of Afghanistan and former senior adviser to the U.S. and the United Nations, said in an interview that Russia’s move was consistent with its efforts “to help broker a peace agreement that does not include a permanent U.S. military presence” in Afghanistan.

Still, Rubin said, the Americans should consider taking part in a Russian dialogue. “The U.S. should get inside the process and help the Afghan government shape it,” he said. “We shouldn’t start a rivalry over who should be in charge of the peace process.”

Afghanistan remains a sensitive domestic issue for Russia given Moscow’s disastrous intervention there in 1979, leading to a protracted war that it ultimately lost. That debacle helped speed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Senior Afghan officials said if the Taliban takes a seat at the table along with representatives of countries in the region, it would be a significant development. The officials said their government’s decision to attend would probably depend on whether the Taliban would agree to formally meet with representatives of the Afghan government during the talks. The Taliban have long refused to sit down with Afghan officials in any public manner.

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