The sewage tanker that exploded in the centre of Kabul on Wednesday – leaving at least 80 people dead and damaging several foreign embassies, including Canada's – was a bloody reminder that the long war for Afghanistan is far from over.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States made plain why stability in Afghanistan matters to the rest of the world. Despite that – and despite all the blood and money spent there by Canada and other Western countries earlier this century – Afghanistan's multisided war has become a forgotten conflict.
Sixteen years after the United States and its NATO allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom – promising to deny safe haven to terrorist groups and to liberate Afghanistan's people, primarily its women – the country's unity government is dangerously fragile and its army controls a shrinking share of territory.
The Taliban are rapidly regaining ground, and women's rights in the parts of the country back under their control are little different than in the days before the U.S.-led invasion when girls were banned from attending school past the age of 8, and women were allowed to work in only a handful of professions.
Another facet of Taliban rule, of course, was their willingness to allow groups such as al-Qaeda to operate in their territory, plotting attacks against the West.
In addition to the Taliban, Afghanistan also has a growing number of Islamic State fighters (the two groups are rivals and have even fought each other in some parts of the country).
There are also another 20 or so jihadi groups dedicated to overthrowing the unity government that was cobbled together under U.S. pressure following a disputed 2014 election.
None of those factions claimed immediate responsibility for Wednesday's attack, which left more than 400 people injured, including staff at the U.S. and German embassies. The Canadian embassy was among the diplomatic missions that sustained damage, though it was described as minimal and no Canadians were among the dead or injured.
"The aim was to strike in a big way in a high-security area to amplify that the state is helpless to stop these attacks, and that no one is safe anywhere at any time," said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
And yet, the world – or at least the West – hardly seems to be paying attention any more.
U.S. President Donald Trump, whose country still has 8,400 soldiers in the country, has said hardly a word about Afghanistan since coming to office in January, though he haspresided over the U.S. military's use of its so-called mother of all bombs – the largest non-nuclear weapon in the American arsenal – to blow up an Islamic State cave system in April.
That inattention seems to have spread to other members of the 28-member NATO alliance, which fought alongside the United States as Afghanistan became the central front in the "war on terror" that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than 3,400 NATO soldiers, including 159 Canadians, died in the fight for Afghanistan, which changed phases – but didn't end – in 2014, when NATO declared a formal end to combat operations and handed security authority to a rebuilt Afghan national army.
Mr. Trump and the other NATO leaders were expected to use last week's summit in Brussels to announce a "mini-surge" that would see thousands more alliance troops and trainers sent to bolster that Afghan force, which has lost 6,500 soldiers in the past 12 months alone.
But the NATO meeting – which was plagued by acrimony between Mr. Trump and other key leaders – ended without any new announcements about Afghanistan.
Analysts say the West's pullback has created space for other powers to push their own agendas in Afghanistan. While India, along with the West, backs the national unity government in Kabul, Russia and Iran have been accused of reaching out to the Taliban. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, are accused of aiding other jihadi groups, such as the Haqqani network, a Taliban splinter group. China has also been trying to expand its influence in the country.
"Afghanistan has sort of fallen off the radar screen, but in reality Afghanistan also encapsulates to some extent the crises we're seeing in the rest of the world," said Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France.
"Regional players are more engaged in rivalry over Afghanistan than at any time over the last 15 years," Mr. Samad said. "It's a reflection of what's happening between great powers, and between regional players, in a very sensitive part of the world."
Whoever was behind the massive blast that left a crater several metres deep, one of the primary casualties will likely be Afghanistan's already sputtering peace process. One Western official based in Kabul, speaking on the condition that he wouldn't be named, suggested the attack may have been aimed at derailing a 21-country peace summit that the Afghan capital was preparing to host on June 6.
Wednesday's bomb went off on a main road near the German embassy and came about a week after Germans envoys received a warning that the Haqqani network wanted to target the that country's diplomatic mission.
Security personnel at the German embassy took the threat seriously and moved staff out of a building closest to the exterior wall of the embassy compound. The Western official said that decision "likely saved lives."
The chances of success of the June 6 peace summit were considered vanishingly small even before the attack. Clashes between the national army and the Taliban – which declined an invitation to send representatives to the June 6 meeting – have spiked 20 per cent this year, according to U.S. government figures.
Violence is now at the highest rate in the past decade, and it's the Taliban that are making gains. The national army now holds just 60 per cent of the country's territory, down from 70 per cent a year ago.
"Peace efforts have failed for a simple reason: The Taliban has no incentive to step off the battlefield when it's making so many gains on it," Mr. Kugelman said.