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 its ability to bluff its way past two checkpoints and storm a highly fortified zone of the capital.
The firefight took place in Ariana Square, about 500 yards 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. 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 Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, Karzai's office said.
The White House said Obama and Karzai affirmed that Afghanistan, not the United States, must lead the reconciliation process. The leaders also said they still support meetings between Afghanistan's High Peace Council and Taliban representatives .
Taliban leaders 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 wanted to show to the world that 'we can do it.' "
The gunbattle started around 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 a black Land Cruiser and started shooting. Another group of fighters 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.