Just as Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani prepared today to address lawmakers as part of his first official visit to the US, a suicide bombing near his presidential palace in the center of Kabul killed at least seven people and injured dozens more.
The latest deadly attack — the second in as many days in Afghanistan — is yet another sign of the ever fragile security situation facing the country's new leader.
A suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden car in Kabul's Murad Khani district on March 25, close to Afghanistan's Finance Ministry and the presidential palace.
Ghani, who received a warm welcome and much applause on Capitol Hill, is in the US as he attempts to repair relationships left tarnished by his predecessor Hamid Karzai and to secure continued logistical, economic, and military US support — though the US combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended in December. In his speech, he repeatedly thanked America for progress made in Afghanistan.
"On behalf of our parliament and people, I salute and thank you," Ghani told Congress, praising bipartisan support for US military commitment to Afghanistan. "Our deepest hope is that the time will come when Americans visiting our country see the cultural heritage and natural beauties […] not as soldiers but as parents showing their children the beautiful country where they served in the war that defeated terror."
"On behalf of my country, when that day comes, you'll be our most welcome and honored guests," he added, before recounting learning about the 9/11 attacks from his office in DC, where he spent years as a World Bank official. "Tragedy brought our countries together, but it's our shared interest and values that will keep us together."
Ghani also spoke of the previous government's failure to sign a security agreement that extended the stay of up to 10,000 US troops through this year, and said he regretted the loss of momentum, but thanked President Obama for keeping troops in Afghanistan. He also spoke extensively about gains made in education, health, and women's rights — receiving a standing ovation when he said he looks forward to one day supporting Afghanistan's first female president.
"Thank you for staying with us," Ghani said, adding he hopes for continued US support as he worked to build "self reliance."
Afghan forces have taken over the country's security as foreign troops started to withdraw — but attacks like today's are ongoing, and expected to increase as peace talks with the Taliban remain in limbo, and as spring — which is "fighting season" in Afghanistan — approaches.
Before today, the latest attack in Kabul had been last week, when a powerful provincial chief was killed in a suicide blast while visiting the capital. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack, while nobody has yet claimed responsibility for today's blast, which was carried out by an attacker traveling in a vehicle loaded with explosives. It's not immediately clear who the intended target of the attack was.
Civilian casualties across the country have been on the rise as the Taliban moves to regain control of areas left behind by departing foreigners. More than 3,700 civilians were killed in 2014 alone, according to UN figures — the highest toll since the US military surge in 2009.
For weeks now, talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been rumored to be imminent, despite denials on both sides. Reservations about the peace process remain among officials and have divided the Taliban.
"There's been a lot of momentum and a lot of movement," Faiysal AliKhan, a Pakistani analyst who has been following talks with the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, told VICE News. "But among the Taliban, there are two different camps: one which is more interested in pursuing the peace talks and possibly playing a role in the Afghan government going forward, and another which feels that until the condition of foreign forces leaving the country is done, then they don't want in."
"Everyone is preparing for a spring offensive and expecting some sort of push by these groups to try to demonstrate to the people that they are very much a strong player at this stage," he added. "These are intimidation tactics by those that are not for this process, and this is something we expect to see more of, because there are so many who are not for this process."
Peace has been a priority for Ghani since he was sworn into office in the fall.
"We must secure peace," he said in his speech to Congress, addressing, as he called it, "the elephant in the room." To achieve that, he added, Afghanistan needs America's "know-how" and support, but not its charity.
"Our goal of self reliance is no pipe dream," he pledged. "We are not going to be the lazy Uncle Joe."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi