x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Afghanistan marks sombre independence day

August 19 commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919, which granted Afghanistan full independence from Britain.

KABUL // Afghanistan marked independence day as the Taliban-led insurgency drags on, with foreign troop deaths at record highs and the government under pressure to honour pledges on corruption and security. In a new wave of violence one NATO soldier, several policemen and more than two dozen rebels were killed in attacks and counter-insurgency operations across the troubled country, authorities said. 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. The 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 President Hamid Karzai. Karzai on Thursday attended a low-profile event in Kabul, placing a floral wreath at the base of the marble independence memorial near his palace. 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. The Taliban, who were ousted in a 2001 US-led invasion and are the main militant group behind a growing insurgency, also marked the day, vowing to defeat the NATO force and calling them "invaders". "Indeed, the invasion by the British was not the only one, Afghanistan has suffered many attacks and invasions prior to the British invasion and afterwards," a statement by the Taliban "leadership council" said. "The Afghan nation has never tolerated the occupation of their country before and will never tolerate it in the future at all." Karzai returned to the capital 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 summit, which also involved Tajikistan, adopted a joint declaration supporting the intention of business leaders from Russia, Pakistan and Tajikistan to help Afghanistan rebuild its war-battered 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 which spilled into civil war and was followed by the Taliban's brutal 1996-2001 regime. Karzai has increasingly turned 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 the 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. Kerry also visited US troops in the south, where the Taliban-led insurgency is concentrated. He was expected to return to Kabul Thursday after a brief visit to flood-stricken Pakistan. 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. It said had carried out nearly 40 operations targeting insurgents across the troubled nation in the past week, killed 20 rebels and capturing another 110. * Agence France-Presse