As Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Hamid Karzai and oversaw the symbolic handoff of a major military prison on a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week, a suicide bombing killed five police officers in the eastern city of Jalalabad Tuesday.
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for today’s attack, which also injured at least five Afghans at the police headquarters in the provincial capital, according to the Associated Press. In a separate incident today a car bomb blast injured at least 10 British troops on a patrol base in Helmand Province, according to the Guardian.
The timing of the violence highlights the major security challenges that remain as the United States attempts to wind down a decade of intensive military presence in the country and hand control to the Afghans.
The attacks came just hours after Secretary Kerry and President Karzai held a rosy news conference in Kabul on the state of US-Afghan relations, which have undergone particular strain in recent weeks after Karzai accused the US of working with the Taliban to deliberately keep the country weak.
But during his trip, Kerry was glowing in his appraisal of Karzai, declaring that he and the president were “on the same page” when it came to Afghan security and reconciliation.
"I am confident the president [Karzai] does not believe the US has any interest except to see the Taliban come to the table to make peace and that we are completely cooperative with the government of Afghanistan with respect to the protection of their efforts and their people," Kerry told reporters.
Monday’s meeting was a pivot from the prickly interaction between Karzai and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Mr. Hagel’s own trip to the country earlier this month. During that visit, Hagel and Karzai abruptly called off a joint press conference after tense closed-door negotiations failed to yield progress on key diplomatic questions, including the transfer of a key US-controlled prison to Afghan hands.
The American military formally ceded control of all but a “small number” of prisoners in that facility, known as Bagram Prison, to the Afghans during Kerry’s visit Monday.
This marks the formal completion of a transfer of 4,000 Bagram prisoners that began a year ago, but hit several snags over perceived security threats. The US military, however, will continue to hold in its custody around 50 high-level foreign prisoners considered “enduring security threats,” along with hundreds of Afghans arrested since the initial transfer deal was authorized last March, reports Russia Today.
Despite its limitations, however, the transfer has potent symbolic value for Afghanistan, writes The New York Times.
Bagram Prison was the most flagrant symbol of Mr. Karzai’s lack of control. Americans detained several thousand Afghans there, and Mr. Karzai had no power to release them. His effort to wrest the prison from the Americans began in earnest more than year ago, and nearly succeeded at least twice, most recently two weeks ago, a day before Mr. Hagel’s first visit.
Each time, American military commanders backed out because of worries that the Afghans might release Taliban prisoners, who would return to the battlefield and endanger American soldiers. This time, despite those concerns, the transfer went forward.
“It’s about a shift that’s going on in how the U.S. is looking at what’s important,” said one American official knowledgeable about detention issues. “We have to look at the larger picture: What’s the U.S. strategic interest here?”
Kerry rounded out his visit Tuesday by meeting with democracy activists and female entrepreneurs at the American Embassy in Kabul. There, he traded headers with the captain of the Afghan women’s national soccer team and lauded civic leaders preparing for the 2014 elections, according to the Associated Press.
"You're engaged in a remarkable effort and the whole world is watching," Kerry said.