Hillary Clinton pays unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Afghanistan on Wednesday

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday night on an unannounced visit aimed at restarting a peace process left in tatters by the assassination last month of the country’s chief peace negotiator.

Clinton was to meet Thursday with President Hamid Karzai and other senior Afghan officials, along with members of civil society, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

Security was extremely tight for the visit, which comes less than six weeks after a sustained attack on the U.S. Embassy compound by insurgents. There were no American casualties in the attack, but 16 Afghans were killed.

Afghanistan’s already tenuous peace process was plunged into disarray with the Sept. 20 killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the country’s High Peace Council, which was given the task of bringing the Taliban insurgents to the bargaining table.

After Rabbani was slain by an assailant who had posed as a Taliban peace envoy, Karzai said he saw little point in trying to hold direct talks with the Taliban. He asserted that negotiations could only resume with the cooperation of Pakistan, which has long served as a haven for insurgent leaders.

Some members of the Karzai administration said there was evidence that Pakistan’s main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, was complicit in Rabbani’s assassination, but Karzai stopped short of making such an accusation.

Clinton’s visit coincides with a thaw in what had been chilly relations between the Obama administration and Karzai. A new civilian-military team, headed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, the U.S. Marine who now commands Western troops in Afghanistan, has taken a more conciliatory tone toward the Afghan leader, who in turn has lately backed away from stridently anti-U.S. statements.

Prior to Rabbani’s assassination, Clinton had signaled that the administration placed a high priority on initiating negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Even in the wake of the killing, she has indicated that talks with the Haqqani network -- a virulent Taliban offshoot -- might still be possible.

The Haqqanis are believed responsible for a string of high-profile attacks in Kabul, including the 20-hour embassy siege last month.

Even as Clinton attempts to rekindle reconciliation hopes, U.S. troops have launched a major offensive in recent days against Haqqani fighters, who are based in Pakistan and operate mainly in Afghanistan’s east, close to the Pakistani frontier. Two U.S. troops were killed Wednesday in the east of Afghanistan, military officials said without disclosing the precise location.

During her visit, Clinton was also expected to try to advance talks on a long-term “strategic partnership” agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan. It had been hoped by U.S. officials that the pact would be finalized by now, but several sticking points have emerged.

[For the Record, 4:26 p.m. Oct. 13: An earlier version of this post incorrectly gave the date of Rabbani's killing as Sept. 21]

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-- Laura King

Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker as Afghan chief of protocol Hamid Saddiq, second from right, and Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparotti look on upon her arrival in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. Credit: Pool Photo

 
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