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Tragedy in Kabul comes at a dark time for U.S. foreign policy

A horrifying attack comes as cuts to the State Department and mixed messaging from the United States have many concerned.

People carry an injured man after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 31, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photos/Rahmat Gul
People carry an injured man after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 31, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photos/Rahmat Gul

At least 80 people are dead and 350 wounded following a truck bombing in Afghanistan Wednesday morning.

In what appears to be one of the worst attacks to hit the country in years, a bomb went off in Kabul near Zanbaq Square, which leads to the presidential palace. Often frequented by diplomats, the area is home to many foreign embassies and considered one of Kabul’s safest sections. An independent analyst and commentator based in Kabul, Mushtaq Rahim, told Al Jazeera that the staggeringly high civilian casualties were largely due to the traffic congestion surrounding security checkpoints.

“The area is heavily guarded and there is usually traffic jam, just because of security-controlled points in the area,” Rahim said. “And that was one of the main reasons that we had so many civilian casualties because of the congestion that happens in that area.”

Several journalists were reported killed or injured in the attack. TOLO news, an Afghan outlet, reported that one of its employees, Aziz Navin, 22, was killed, and the BBC also tweeted that a journalist in his late thirties, Mohammed Nazir, died in the blast.

Leaders around the world expressed horror over the violence. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the attack “a crime against humanity,” made even more terrible by its timing. “The terrorists, even in the holy month of Ramadan, the month of goodness, blessing and prayer, are not stopping the killing of our innocent people,” said Ghani in a statement.

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Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, told the New York Times that the bombing had targeted “those who are in Afghanistan working with the people there for a better future” and called the action “despicable.” Following the bombing, Germany announced that it had halted deportations back to the country for the next few days, while emphasizing that deportations would resume shortly.

U.S. President Donald Trump has not commented yet, but Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) condemned the attack, in addition to drawing conclusions about its origins. “I strongly condemn this attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul,” read a statement from Ryan’s office. “This is another gruesome reminder that the Taliban, Haqqani network, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates are only interested in terror and hate rather than ending two decades of bloodshed. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan and all of our allies to defeat this unspeakable evil.”

The tragedy in Kabul comes at an uncertain time for international relations. Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy has become increasingly erratic and incoherent. In Afghanistan this trend is especially true. With little warning, the United States dropped the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast,” or “Mother of All Bombs,” in mid-April on the eastern province of Nangarhar, purportedly striking at ISIS militants, though it is unclear what effect the action had.

Following an earlier visit by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Afghanistan in April, shortly after Taliban militants attacked a military base, killing at least 140 soldiers in the worst attack a location of its kind had seen in the war so far. Like Wednesday’s tragedy, the victims were predominantly Afghan, continuing a tragic trend. Since the war began in 2001, thousands upon thousands of Afghans have been killed, with no end to the violence.

Not helping matters is Trump’s proposed budget. If approved, the proposal would decrease funding for international programs and the U.S. State Department by nearly a third — from $39.7 billion in 2017 to $28.2 billion in 2018. With less invested in diplomacy and development, security around the globe will likely decrease — a point over 120 retired U.S. generals and admirals made in a letter to Congress in February.

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How Afghanistan will be impacted by Trump’s budget and the administration’s general maneuverings is unclear — but it seems increasingly unlikely that the country will benefit much. Under President Barack Obama, efforts were made to end what is now the longest war the United States has been involved in. But while Obama worked to scale back U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Trump’s administration has indicated an interest in doing the opposite. With the Taliban now in control of 40 percent of the country, military leadership in Afghanistan have suggested a surge of 5,000 more troops — sparking controversy in a White House not known for its consistent messaging.

Many Afghan officials have asked for an increase in military assistance from the United States, but there is skepticism that a few thousand more troops would have much of an impact in a country already grappling with daily violence. Wednesday’s attack arguably revealed that even areas presumed to be safer remain at high risk of attack. At present, no party has come forward to claim the attack. A Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied any involvement by the group. But Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency has blamed the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network of being behind the attack.

The violence in Kabul comes shortly after two major Ramadan attacks in Baghdad, Iraq, killing dozens and claimed by ISIS — one of which targeted families eating ice cream after a day of fasting.