Afghan forces are taking the lead role in security nationwide, President Hamid Karzai said at a ceremony in Kabul to mark the end of a transition as the U.S.- led international coalition winds down its 12-year war.
As Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen prepared to speak in the capital, a suicide bomber exposed the challenges facing the Afghan police and army as they confront the insurgents, striking a convoy carrying a prominent lawmaker and killing at least three civilians.
“Today is a historic day for Afghanistan,” Karzai said of the milestone, as he stood alongside Rasmussen. “Afghan forces are leading security” operations across the country.
U.S. President Barack Obama in January announced an accelerated transfer to Afghan-led operations ahead of a complete withdrawal of the 66,000 American combat troops currently in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. As the exit of foreign fighting forces nears, efforts to find a negotiated end to the conflict will receive a boost later today with the Taliban expected to open a political office in Qatar to aid talks. Karzai said today he would soon send a team of High Peace Council members to the Gulf state, and expressed his hope the Taliban would recognize them as a talks partner.
International forces began the security transition in 2011 in the relatively peaceful central province of Bamiyan. Control of the last 95 districts was formally handed to Afghan forces today, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.
Of those, 13 are in Kandahar province, where the Taliban insurgency began. Others are in Nangarhar, Khost and Paktika provinces, all of which lie along the country’s disputed border with Pakistan, the BBC reported.
While international training programs and assistance have helped boost the manpower of the Afghan army and police to 352,000, they don’t yet have the expertise and equipment to fill the void left by the departure of coalition troops, said Jawed Kohestani, an independent Kabul-based security and political analyst.
If that doesn’t change, “the transition may severely affect Afghanistan’s security,” he said by phone.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has talked about leaving a force of 8,000-12,000 troops in Afghanistan for a post-combat training role. Rasmussen and U.S. military officials have declined to endorse any estimate of how many coalition troops will be needed in Afghanistan to train and advise local forces when NATO’s combat mission concludes.
While NATO’s combat role will end, “Afghanistan will not stand alone,” Rasmussen said earlier this month. “We will still be there to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.”
Today’s attack targeted Mohammad Mohaqiq, Hashmatullah Stanekzai, the spokesman for Kabul’s police chief, said by phone. Mohaqiq is a leader of the country’s ethnic Hazara minority who was formerly part of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban. He was unhurt while three of his security guards were wounded.
Two strikes earlier this month in the heavily guarded capital were aimed at the country’s Supreme Court -- killing at least 15 people -- and buildings under construction adjacent to the city’s airport.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan following the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, 3,336 coalition troops have died, 2,238 of them from the U.S., according to the iCasualties.org website which tracks the war. Deaths peaked at 711 in 2010 and have fallen to 87 so far this year, the website data show.
Afghan civilians have paid an even greater price, with 2,754 killed amid clashes between the Taliban and security forces in 2012 alone, according to the latest annual survey by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.