Richard Holbrooke, US special aide for Afghanistan and Pakistan, on Thursday arrived in Kabul a day after attacks left 28 people dead in the capital, raised tensions with Pakistan and signalled an escalation in the US-led war with the Taliban.

With Barack Obama’s administration identifying Afghanistan as its biggest military challenge, Mr Holbrooke’s task is to liaise with local leaders as part of a US-led review of policy intended to finalise a strategy for the country before a Nato summit on April 3 and 4.

The difficulties facing the administration were highlighted by Wednesday’s well planned attack, in which eight gunmen stormed justice ministry buildings and the ministry of education, bringing panic to the centre of Kabul.

For much of the duration of the Afghanistan war, the US and its allies have insisted that the Taliban threat is concentrated in outlying regions in the south and east of the country. Commentators have interpreted the latest strike as a warning that the US is facing an increasingly emboldened enemy able to strike the most sensitive targets. The US administration is considering a military request to increase troops in Afghanistan by 30,000, with Mr Obama likely to make a decision on an initial deployment in coming days.

“It seems the Taliban are already gearing up to counter the arrival of more US troops. If there are more attacks in places like Kabul which are said to be protected that will establish a pattern [of defiance],” said one western diplomat in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

Amrullah Saleh, head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, told a news conference that the attackers sent text messages to a terror network in Pakistan, before carrying out the attack.

“As they were entering the ministry of justice and before starting the indiscriminate killing of the civilians there, they sent three messages to Pakistan, calling for the blessing of their mastermind,” he said. Kabul’s criticism of Pakistan centres on Taliban havens along the troubled border of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, and the failure of the Pakistani army to dislodge militants from the mountainous region.

Mr Obama this week told Pakistan “we’ve got work in a regional fashion to root out [both al-Qaeda and Taliban] safe havens”.

“It’s not acceptable for Pakistan or for us to have folks who, with impunity, will kill innocent men, women and children,” he said.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad are often strained, despite an improvement in ties following Asif Ali Zardari’s emergence as Pakistan’s president.

Afghan officials have cited Pakistani involvement in other high profile terrorist attacks on their soil, including the bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul last year that left 58 people dead. Senior Indian officials blame elements in the Pakistani military for the attack, although Pakistan says there was no direct connection.

US officials including Robert Gates, defence secretary, have warned they believe there is no military solution to the war. Many have signalled their support for dialogue with “moderate” elements of the Taliban. “I do think you have to talk to enemies,” General David Petraeus, head of US central command, said last year.

Additional reporting by James Lamont in New Delhi

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