Afghanistan marked its independence day on Thursday as the long war in the country drags on, with foreign military deaths at record levels and the government under pressure to honour pledges on corruption and security.
August 19 commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919, which granted Afghanistan full independence from Britain – though the country was never part of the British empire – after three bloody wars.
President Hamid Karzai attended the low profile event in Kabul, placing a floral wreath at the base of the marble independence memorial near his palace, his spokesman said.
The ceremony was attended by Western dignitaries including the commander of foreign forces, US General David Petraeus, who watched Karzai inspect a guard of honour, he said.
Afghanistan’s Independence Day was traditionally marked by a military parade and other public events, but these were scaled down after a Taliban attack in 2008 that was seen as an assassination attempt on Karzai.
Karzai returned to Kabul late on Wednesday after attending a rare summit with his Pakistani and Russian counterparts, at which they agreed to pursue joint economic projects to help bring stability to the volatile region.
The four-way summit, which also involved Tajikistan, adopted a joint declaration, supporting the intentions by business leaders from Russia, Pakistan and Tajikistan to help Afghanistan rebuild its infrastructure, including in the energy and transportation sectors.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted Karzai, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Tajikistan’s Emomaly Rahmon in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Afghanistan’s current war cycle, which has lasted 30 years, began with a Soviet invasion in December 1979 that sparked a decade-long war that spilled into civil war and was followed by the Taliban’s brutal 1996-2001 regime.
Karzai has been increasingly turning to his neighbours — which also include Iran and China — as pressure intensifies from his Western backers to make progress on pledges to improve governance.
Led by the United States, Karzai’s allies are concerned that his government is not honouring commitments on touchstone issues such as corruption and security, potentially threatening their plans to begin troop withdrawals.
The United States and NATO have 141,000 troops in Afghanistan, fighting a Taliban-led insurgency that has so far this year claimed 437 foreign soldiers.
On beginning his second five-year term last year — after an election tainted by massive fraud, mostly in his favour — Karzai promised to deal with rampant graft and take on greater responsibility for national security.
US Senator John Kerry, whose presence this week in Afghanistan is coming to signal the depth of Washington’s concern, described corruption as “one of the most significant challenges facing Afghanistan”.
“I think in the next days the government of Afghanistan’s response to anti-corruption efforts are a key test of its ability to regain the confidence of the people and provide the kind of governance that the American people are prepared to support with hard-earned tax dollars and most importantly with the treasure of our country, the lives of young men and women,” Kerry said.
“I believe President Karzai wants to do that but my belief that he wants to do it is not going to be enough. It’s going to have to be done.”
Benchmarks would be set, he said, but declined to go into detail.
Kerry also visited US troops stationed in the country’s south, where the Taliban-led insurgency is concentrated.
NATO said that one of its soldiers was killed Wednesday in the south after at attack with an improvised bomb, the hallmark of the Taliban.
In a separate statement, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said aircraft had hit insurgent strongholds near the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing two dozen rebels.
ISAF said the insurgents were killed in air raids on their hideouts in the province of Logar, just south of Kabul. The raids were part of an operation launched in the restive province to capture a Taliban commander.