On June 25, Afghanistan insurgents detonated a car bomb and fought security forces in front of the presidential palace. The area is the most heavily guarded in the country. Penetrating the enormous security apparatus is a major success, but spectacular attacks of various types are nothing new in this long-term insurgency.
The Taliban has claimed responsibility, but the attackers might actually have been from the Haqqani network, an affiliated group close to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan a minibus detonated an explosive device, killing 11 members of a single family.
Recently, the Taliban has indicated willingness to enter into peace talks but balks at dealing directly with the government of President Hamid Karzai. Karzai, in turn, wants the talks limited to Afghans. Officials also criticize permitting the Taliban to open an office in Doha, complete with the trappings of an embassy.
On June 18, NATO formally handed over security responsibility for Afghanistan to the Karzai government. While the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan in 2014, small special contingents likely will remain.
Overall, the security picture is mixed. Beyond spectacular raids, the Taliban has failed to capture and hold any significant territory.
Institutional ties between Afghanistan and the U.S. are expanding greatly. In a surprise visit to Kabul in July 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Afghanistan and the United States had become formal allies. This new relationship goes beyond the long-term multilateral effort to stabilize the nation, under United Nations and NATO authority.
Afghanistan joins 14 other nations in the distinctive, special category of strategic partner of the U.S. They include Argentina, Australia, Israel and Japan. Other partners are notably stronger economically, and more stable politically, than Afghanistan.
The bilateral partnership will bring closer cooperation, encompassing regular delivery of military equipment, supplies and weapons. This becomes more important as the insurgency continues.
After the announcement, Clinton and Karzai jointly attended a conference in Tokyo, where donor nations pledged $16 billion in new development assistance. Foreign aid is perennially unpopular among the American people, yet it remains an important source of political leverage as well as economic progress.
Economic as well as military assistance remains essential to this international initiative. Five years ago, leaders representing the Group of Eight major industrial nations made Afghanistan economic assistance commitments totaling about $4 billion. Much of this aid is being concentrated in the tribal areas bordering Pakistan.
The lengthy and often frustrating nature of the South Asia struggle can mask positive political changes, including reasonably honest elections and active participation of women. Despite lack of contemporary infrastructure, technology is spreading steadily. Cell phones and the Internet as well as traditional television are now features of isolated communities.
Here as usual history is instructive. While much commentary on Afghanistan’s turbulent past refers to the heavy-handed, disastrous Soviet military invasion and consequent defeat in the 1980s, the more complex extremely long-term history of Britain’s engagement there is generally neglected.
Over decades through the 19th century, sizable British military expeditions experienced frustration in Afghanistan. However, London eventually was successful in achieving reasonable cooperation with Kabul through economic aid, limited military operations and – above all – astute diplomacy.
With U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, focus shifts to economic and diplomatic tools. Whatever the formal ties, both Americans and Afghans should recognize the latter ultimately will determine – and face responsibility for – the course of their own country.