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Yet another attack on Indian Consulate in Afghan city of Jalalabad

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A suicide attack targeted India’s diplomatic compound in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, with explosions and gunfire rattling the area.

A suicide car bomber detonated an explosives-filled vehicle outside the entrance gates of the Indian consulate compound at about noon (local time), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Smaller explosions and gunfire followed as other militants attempted to storm into the compound after the initial blast.

RFE/RL’s correspondent reported seeing the bodies of four dead gunmen on the ground outside the compound walls after their battle with security forces ended.

Authorities said later that five gunmen and the suicide car bomber were killed.

They said two civilians were killed in the violence and 19 were injured.

In New Delhi, Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said the “consulate has been targeted but everyone is safe” within the compound, which is in a neighborhood that also includes diplomatic offices of other countries.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but both the Taliban and rival Islamic State (IS) militants have a strong presence in the area.

In fact, IS militants have had a growing presence in Nangarhar province during the past year and are challenging the Taliban there.

The diplomatic quarter in Jalalabad, the capital of the province, has been repeatedly attacked in recent months.

In January, IS militants claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on Pakistan’s consulate in Jalalabad – the first major IS attack in the city.

India helped overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and is the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.

But New Delhi’s presence in Afghanistan has irked Islamabad, which has previously alleged that India’s intelligence agency works undercover in the country to undermine Pakistan.

India’s embassy in Kabul was targeted by a suicide car bomber in July 2008 in an attack that killed 58 people.

U.S. intelligence officials suggested that Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency played a role in the attack – an allegation that Islamabad strongly denies.

Wednesday’s attack in Jalalabad came as U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson formally took over command of NATO-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Nicholson replaced the outgoing Gen. John Campbell, who told reporters in Kabul that there “is still much work to be done” in Afghanistan.

Campbell said Afghan security forces have “come far, but they still need” NATO’s help.

Delegates from Afghanistan, China, the United States, and Pakistan said after meeting in Kabul last week that direct peace talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul were expected to start in Islamabad during the first week of March.

But since that announcement, Taliban militants have increased their attacks across Afghanistan — prompting President Ashraf Ghani to say that his government would not negotiate with extremists who kill innocent Afghan civilians.

Published with permission from BenarNews.

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What to Make of Taliban’s Continued Rare Silence on Ghani’s Peace Offer?

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Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks at a panel discussion at Asia Society in Manhattan, New York, Sept. 20, 2017. VOA

Uzbekistan on Tuesday hosted an international conference on Afghanistan and offered to host peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in an effort to help end more than 16 years of war in the country.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told senior diplomats from regional as well as NATO member states that his county was ready to host direct talks with the Taliban.

ALSO READ: Watch Video: Taliban Leader Mullah Mansoor’s Car in Flames attacked by Drone

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Conference held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 27, 2018. VOA

“We stand ready to create all necessary conditions, at any stage of the peace process, to arrange on the territory of Uzbekistan direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement,” Mirziyoyev said at the conference.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, and delegates stand for the national anthem during the second Kabul Process conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Feb. 28, 2018. VOA

The Taskhkent conference comes almost a month after the Kabul Process Conference in which the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered unconditional peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and pledged to recognize the insurgent group as a legitimate political party if it agreed to give up violence.

The insurgents have yet to formally respond to the Afghan government’s offer.

Expert offer different explanations to Taliban’s silence.

Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, believes the apparent silence suggests there is some space for negotiations.

“In the past, they [Taliban] haven’t been shy about publicly rejecting talks for failing to meet preconditions, even while they have been having private conversations. So in this case, I think keeping a low profile means there may be some negotiation space.” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman’s analysis of the situation is not too far from the calculation of some in the Afghan government.

ALSO READ: South Asia: Afghan government to examine reports of Taliban chief’s death

Optimism inside government

Mohammad Akram Khpalwak, chief secretary of the High Peace Council, a government funded body tasked with talking to the insurgents, told reporters earlier this month that they are waiting on an official response from the Afghan Taliban and that their sources indicated that the peace offer has led to high level deliberations among insurgents about what to do with the offer.

Afghan National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar told VOA’s Afghanistan service last week that if the Taliban need more time than they would grant it.

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Afghan National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar speaks with The Associated Press in Kabul, Oct. 24, 2015. VOA

“They [Taliban] neither rejected nor accepted our offer yet,” Atmar told VOA. “If they [Taliban] need more time, they can have it. However, they [Taliban] should be aware that each day by choosing to fight, they cut a day from peace.”

P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary for Public Affairs and spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State during Obama administration said the Taliban taking time to respond is not unprecedented.

“Going back to the process in the early stages of the Obama administration, there was months at a time where we had to determine if Taliban representation was authoritative,” Crowley said.

“The fact that there would be a conversation and then there would be a lengthy period before we got an indication that there was a response or that there were actions that led us to believe that Taliban were serious, those steps took a long time,” Crowley added.

ALSO READ: US Airstrike kills Afghan Taliban Leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, leaves no clear successor

Informal response

The Taliban did respond to a letter published in The New Yorker magazine by Barnett Rubin, an Afghan expert and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, in which Rubin urged the Afghan Taliban to accept ceasefire and talks with the Afghan government.

Without explicitly referring to the peace offer, the insurgent group offered a rather cold response arguing that Afghanistan was “occupied” and that the Kabul Process was seeking the “surrender” of the Taliban.

Speaking to VOA, Rubin said it is not about whether the Taliban want to talk or not, but rather about who they want to talk to and about what.

“U.S. says talk to the Afghan government. Taliban say they [Afghan government] are not the decision makers. That is not who overthrew us. It is the Americans. We [Taliban] want to talk to the Americans. It is pointless to talk to other Afghans until we [Taliban] solve our problems with the Americans,” Rubin said.

“So it is not talks verses no talks. It is whom do they talk to and about what,” Rubin added.

Thomas H. Johnson, author of the book “Taliban Narratives” and director of the cultural and conflict studies program at the Naval Post Graduate School echoes Rubin’s assessment that Taliban views Washington as the real power and wants to talk to the U.S.

“This position also corresponds with their narrative they have suggested since the beginning of the conflict and also served as an explicit informational response to Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. will not negotiate with the Taliban,” Johnson said.

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Armed Taliban fighters are seen at an undisclosed location in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Dec.13, 2010. VOA

“Taliban presently control more of Afghanistan since 2001 and their power and influence appear to be on the rise. It is reasonable to conclude that many Taliban including its leader Hibatullah Akhundzada believe they are winning and thus see no need for negotiation,” Johnson added.

Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst with sources inside the Taliban believes their position has not changed in regards to talk with the Afghan government.

“I think they [Taliban] have time and again said that they do not want to talk to the Afghan government because it [government] does not have the real authority,” Muzhda said.

“The silence does not necessarily mean anything positive in terms of Taliban accepting the offer, as suggested by some in the High Peace Council,” he added referencing to officials’ remarks who suggested that Taliban are mulling over their response.

US position

U.S. wants the Taliban to talk to the government of Afghanistan and welcomed the Afghan government’s gesture to offer unconditional peace talks to the insurgents.

“There is a path to peace and stability with dignity for those members of the Taliban who are prepared to reject violence, end their ties with terrorists, and to accept the constitution and its provisions for minorities and women,” Alice Wells, deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia told VOA’s Uzbek service last month. VOA