Afghan President Hamid Karzai brushed off a recent assassination attempt (al-Jazeera) by rather nonchalantly gesturing to those gathered before him to sit down so he could continue his speech, despite the nearby barrage of rockets. One week later, a bomb set off in central Kabul killed twenty-four (NYT), making it one of the country's worst suicide attacks since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. The incidents underscore the violence, usually directed by Taliban or Taliban-connected warlords, that persists in today’s Afghanistan. The recent killing of a top-ranking Taliban leader also did little to ease the bloodshed in Afghanistan’s unruly south.
Still, glimmers of hope abound, like the standing-up of a decently equipped and trained national army. Police training is another story, as low salaries feeds low recruitment and rampant corruption. “Bribes are more important than bullets,” Michael Fumento writes in the Weekly Standard. But Fumento also argues that Afghanistan remains a “winnable war.”
Afghan hearts and minds remain very much up in the air, as sympathies have not entirely shifted toward the Taliban. Coalition forces try to win over locals by rebuilding bridges (Reuters) and schools and restoring the rule of law. Likewise, Taliban leaders, unlike their counterparts in Iraq, are increasingly avoiding mass casualty attacks and “soft” targets (UPI) for fear of local Afghans turning against them. Of the past 180 suicide bombings, only six or seven targeted civilians, according to a new study authored by Brian Gwyn Williams of UMass-Dartmouth. But other accounts suggest the contrary, including reports of beheadings of teachers, health professionals, and others by Taliban insurgents.
Increasingly, civilian casualties have also come at the hands of air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition forces, writes Karl Inderfurth of George Washington University in the International Herald Tribune. He suggests doling out more cash from NATO to Afghan families of victims, a Status of Forces agreement to spell out more definitively civilian-military relations, and working more closely with the Afghan army to “put an Afghan face on operations.” Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent interview with Bernard Gwertzman, credits U.S. and NATO forces for having secured the Afghan-Pakistani border and prevented the much-anticipated “spring offensive,” despite the rise in suicide attacks over previous years, which he calls “a significant propaganda victory.”
Meanwhile, Iran appears to be waging its own hearts-and-minds campaign by boosting its reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan’s provinces, which were well-received by Karzai. Yet Iran is also reportedly supplying Taliban rebels with weaponry, including a highly destructive type of roadside bomb (BBC) that can penetrate tank armor. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put a finer point on it Wednesday (AP), saying "Iran is now even transferring arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan.” As this new Backgrounder explains, experts disagree over what Iran is after in Afghanistan—a successful, stable state and trade partner or ideological counterpart? A return of Taliban rule or continuation of the status quo? “If you look at the roulette table, Iran is putting money on many different numbers in Afghanistan,” says Amin Tarzi of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.