KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit aimed at encouraging the country's wary leadership to keep up Taliban reconciliation efforts as the Obama administration presses ahead with troop withdrawal plans.
Clinton arrived in Kabul late Wednesday and will see President Hamid Karzai, other top Afghan officials and civic leaders on Thursday. Her trip comes as Karzai has expressed frustration with attempts to woo Taliban fighters away from the insurgency amid increasing attacks by the Taliban-allied, Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
The U.S. sees a political settlement with the Taliban as key to ending the war and is pushing Karzai to lead and expand a reconciliation drive, although the Taliban has indicated no public interest in such a deal. A secret U.S. effort to spark negotiations earlier this year angered Karzai.
At the same time, the goal of reconciling fighters who renounce al-Qaida, violence and embrace Afghanistan's constitution was dealt a major blow with the assassination last month of elder statesman Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading Karzai's outreach. Rabbani was killed when he greeted a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban emissary bearing a reconciliation message.
Karzai has cited the killing as a reason why peace efforts are futile. He lamented recently that although he wants to continue, neighboring Pakistan should be in the lead since the Taliban high command lives there. In addition, spectacular attacks — like one last month on the U.S. Embassy compound and the headquarters of the US-led NATO forces in Kabul — by the Haqqani network have dented enthusiasm for the push.
Over the weekend, militants tried but failed to blast their way into an American base in eastern Afghanistan, striking before dawn with rocket-propelled grenades and a car bomb. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message sent to The Associated Press.
NATO says such spectacular strikes, many of them perpetrated by the Haqqani network, are actually down from past years. But assassinations have increased 60 percent for the same period with 131 people killed so far this year.
In addition to reconciliation, Clinton will also be pressing the Afghans on reaching a security agreement that will govern U.S.-Afghanistan relations after American troops leave. The U.S. plans to bring most forces home by 2015 and intends withdraw the 33,000 additional troops that President Barack Obama sent to Afghanistan in late 2009 by the end of the fighting season in 2012, 10,000 of them by the end of this year.
The U.S. hopes to have the security agreement ready before an international conference on Afghanistan's future in early December.