KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban attack at the gates of the Afghan presidential palace cast a cold light Tuesday on the course of a war that Washington remains committed to ending.
A week after NATO forces handed all security operations to the Afghans, local forces fought off the attackers on their own, killing all eight militants without calling in any coalition help. But the assault also made clear that the Taliban's fighting spirit remains unbroken and demonstrated their ability to bluff their way past two checkpoints and storm a highly fortified zone of the capital.
The firefight took place in Ariana square, about 500 meters (yards) and several more checkpoints away from the presidential palace, where President Hamid Karzai was apparently preparing for a speech later in the morning.
The attack could complicate American efforts to try to get Karzai's government to sit down with the Taliban to talk peace. U.S. President Barack Obama later talked with Karzai in a video conference that lasted more than an hour and covered issues including the peace process and the newly opened Taliban political office in the Gulf nation of Qatar, Karzai's office said without giving further details.
The White House said Obama and Karzai affirmed that Afghanistan, not the U.S., must lead the reconciliation process. The leaders also said they still support meetings between Afghanistan's High Peace Council and Taliban representatives at a political office the Taliban recently opened in Qatar.
The Taliban have said they would continue fighting even as they pursued peace talks, and the attack served to drive that home, said Moeen Marastial, a political analyst and former member of the Afghan parliament.
"The main point is the Taliban wants to show to the government of Afghanistan and to the world and to the powers who are working for the peace process that they are in power," Marastial said. "They can come close to the palace, they can come close to the places where NATO is, where American forces are — they wanted to show to the world that 'we can do it.'"
The gunbattle started about 6:30 a.m. near the east gate leading to the palace next to the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the former Ariana Hotel, which former U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed is used by the CIA. One carload of Taliban fighters dressed in military-style camouflage uniforms emerged from their black Land Cruiser and started shooting. Another got stuck between two checkpoints and detonated their explosives-laden vehicle.
The Taliban said all eight of its fighters died in the attack, while the Interior Ministry said three security guards were killed and another wounded.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility, saying in an emailed statement that "eight of our suicide bombers were able to reach the most secure area of Kabul," identifying them by name and saying they were carrying hand grenades, a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenades.
"The brave mujahedeen, with special tactics and help from inside, were able to reach their target with their weapons and cars," he said. He said their targets were the CIA building, the palace and the Defense Ministry and claimed "a number of foreign invaders were killed and wounded in the attack."
Karzai reacted sharply, saying that the Taliban cannot on one hand open an office for peace in Qatar and on the other hand kill people in Afghanistan.
"The enemies of the people of Afghanistan once again proved with their failed attack that they are against peace, stability and progress in Afghanistan," he said.
The Taliban have refused to negotiate with Karzai's government in the past, saying the U.S. holds effective control in Afghanistan, but the Americans are hoping to bring the two sides together. Long-stalled negotiations have become more urgent with Afghan presidential elections and the withdrawal of most U.S. and other foreign combat troops looming in 2014.
The Americans announced last week that they planned to begin formal talks with the Taliban in Doha, which would be followed by talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
But when the Taliban opened the Doha office under the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" and the flag it used while ruling Afghanistan, Karzai and other Afghans reacted sharply, saying that agreements had been violated and that the office was more akin to a rival embassy than a bureau for peace negotiations.
The Taliban have since been forced to remove the offending flag and sign but no peace talks have yet begun and the incident served to highlight the tensions between the various sides.
After Tuesday's attack, U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham urged an end to the violence and again pushed for the Taliban to open peace negotiations.
"All of the attackers were killed, without success in achieving their goals — This again demonstrates the futility of the Taliban's efforts to use violence and terror to achieve their aims," he said in a statement. "We again call on the Taliban to come to the table to talk to the Afghanistan government about peace and reconciliation."
The palace is in a large fortified area of downtown Kabul that also includes the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters for the NATO-led coalition forces, and access is heavily restricted. Some Kabul residents initially thought the gunfire was a coup attempt because the idea of a Taliban attack within the security zone seemed so unlikely.
A group of journalists, including from The Associated Press, were waiting to enter the palace grounds for a news event with Karzai when they witnessed the start of the attack. The journalists took cover behind a religious shrine, pulling a young boy off the street who had been caught in the open on his way to school.
Kabul police chief Gen. Mohamad Ayub Salangi said the gunmen jumped out of their SUV and opened fire after the second vehicle was stopped by security forces while trying to use fake documents to get through a checkpoint. The second vehicle's car bomb then exploded.
Smoke could be seen coming from the area of the hotel where the CIA is said to be located, but there was no immediate indication any of the buildings were hit in the attack.
Also early Tuesday, in the southern province of Kandahar, a minibus hit a bomb buried in the road, killing 11 members of a groom's family on their way to an engagement party, said Kandahar governor's spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal. Faisal said the dead included eight women, two children and a man, and two other men were also wounded.
In Oruzgan, the province north of Kandahar, provincial governor's spokesman Abdullah Hemat said Tuesday that six Afghan national police were killed the day before when their patrol was attacked with a roadside bomb.
And a NATO convoy was hit with a roadside bomb in the province of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, destroying a vehicle but causing no casualties.
Associated Press Amir Shah contributed to this report.