KABUL - Suicide bombers attacked a compound housing Westerners in Kabul on Wednesday hours after US President Barack Obama signed a security pact during a short visit to a city that remains vulnerable to a resilient insurgency.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack which involved a car bomb and insurgents disguised as women on the eastern outskirts of the capital, killing seven people, a Gurkha guard and six passers-by, and wounding 17.
The Taliban said it was in response to Obama's visit and to the strategic partnership deal he signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a pact that sets out a long-term US role after most foreign combat troops leave by the end of 2014.
The insurgency also claimed their spring offensive, which began two weeks ago with attacks in Kabul, would be renewed on Thursday, despite a security clamp-down in the capital.
Obama's visit came a year after US special forces troops killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in a raid in neighboring Pakistan.
In a televised address to the American people from a base north of Kabul, he said the war in Afghanistan was winding down.
"As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it's time to renew America," Obama said, speaking against a backdrop of armored vehicles and a US flag.
"This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end."
Nearly 3,000 US and NATO soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the Taliban rulers were ousted in 2001.
The Taliban, overthrown by US-backed Afghan forces for harboring bin Laden and other militants, were quick to take credit for Wednesday's attack at Green Village, one of several compounds for Westerners on a main road out of the capital.
"This attack was to make clear our reaction to Obama's trip to Afghanistan. The message was that instead of signing a strategic partnership deal with Afghanistan, he should think about taking his troops out from Afghanistan and leave it to Afghans to rebuild their country," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
But America's Kabul ambassador, Ryan Crocker, said involvement of the Haqqani network - which Washington believes is based in Pakistan's North Waziristan region and which it blames for high-profile attacks in Kabul in April - could not be ruled out.
On the anniversary of bin Laden's killing, Crocker said he did not believe there would be a sole turning point in the war.
"Al-Qaida is still there. We do feel we are prevailing in this with our Afghan partners," he said. "We cannot be in a position of taking on ourselves bringing perfection to Afghanistan. That has to be left to Afghans."
But Crocker said there would be no repeat of the 1990s when a withdrawal of Western backers in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal unleashed a vicious civil war out of which the Taliban and al Qaeda support bases arose.
Blood stains on the street
Hundreds of police and intelligence agency troops surrounded the area around Green Village after the attack. Ruined cars were seen in front of the compound gates but officials said no attackers made it inside the heavily-guarded complex.
Wednesday's attack was the latest in a recent surge of violence after the Taliban announced they had begun their usual "spring offensive", and since they suspended tentative steps towards peace talks with the United States.
Such incidents raise troubling questions about the readiness of Afghan forces to take over when militants remain able to stage high-profile attacks, even when already tight security had been beefed up even further for Obama's visit.
Insurgents staged coordinated attacks in Kabul last month, paralyzing the city's center and diplomatic area for 18 hours.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for those attacks, but US and Afghan officials blamed the militant, al-Qieda-linked Haqqani network.
Obama's visit was clearly an election-year event.
He spoke to US troops during a stay in Afghanistan of roughly six hours and emphasized bin Laden's demise, an event his re-election campaign has touted as one of his most important achievements in office.
"Not only were we able to drive al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al-Qaida, and a year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice," Obama said to cheers.
But even as he asserted in his speech that there was a "clear path" to fulfilling the US mission in Afghanistan and made his strongest claim yet that the defeat of al-Qaida was "within reach," he warned of further hardship ahead.
"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war ... But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly," he said at Bagram airbase.
While speaking in broad terms of "difficult days ahead", Obama did not address some of the thorniest challenges.
These include corruption in Karzai's government, the unsteadiness of Afghan forces in the face of a resilient Taliban insurgency, and Washington's strained ties with Pakistan, where US officials see selective cooperation in cracking down on militants fuelling cross-border violence.
Earlier, Obama met Karzai at his walled garden palace in Kabul, where they signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. "By signing this document, we close the last 10 years and open a new season of equal relations," Karzai said after the meeting.
The agreement does not specify whether a reduced number of US troops, possibly special forces, and advisers will remain after NATO's 2014 withdrawal deadline. That will be dealt with in a separate status-of-forces agreement still being worked out.
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