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“Today is a historic day for Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai said, standing alongside NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The transition began in July 2011, followed by three subsequent rounds of provincial handoffs, reports Reuters.
“[NATO] will no longer plan, execute or lead combat operations," Mr. Rasmussen said, referring to the nearly 97,000 troops from NATO countries still stationed in Afghanistan. “By the end of 2014 our combat mission will be complete.” Until then, international troops will continue in a support role, providing training, intelligence, and ground forces as needed, reports the BBC.
Many at home and abroad harbor doubts that Afghan forces are prepared for the myriad security challenges that still exist. A December Pentagon report noted that “just one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is capable of operating on its own without NATO support,” reports Foreign Policy. The transition has placed an outsized burden on Afghan troops, according to Reuters: “In one year, the Afghan state has lost more troops than NATO has across the entire war.”
[The Army] isn’t ready, but is nevertheless being pushed into a commanding role by NATO members keen to withdraw their combat troops by late 2014 and end the high costs and body count of a protracted conflict.
Just 90 minutes before today’s ceremony in Kabul a bomb exploded killing three civilians and wounding at least 21 others, reports CNN. The bombing targeted parliamentarian Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior member of the Afghan peace council. Mr. Mohaqiq survived the attack.
Just last week the Taliban launched an attack on the Kabul airport, where NATO has an base. According to the LA Times, today’s bombing was the fifth high-profile attack in Kabul in a month and a half.
The Taliban said it would target foreign troops, UN officials and Afghans working with international forces at the start of its spring offensive, a time when warmer weather generally brings more intense fighting.
Proving that Afghan troops are capable of tamping down Taliban violence is an immediate goal, but a full peace agreement was high on the mind today as the Taliban is expected to open a political office in Qatar. President Karzai announced he would send a team of peace negotiators from a council formed in 2010 to the Gulf state, reports Bloomberg.
An Afghan diplomatic source told Reuters that the Taliban would open an office in Qatar as early as today. "This will help start the peace talks again," the unnamed source said. Reuters reports:
Karzai said three principles had been created to guide the talks - that having begun in Qatar, they must then immediately be moved to Afghanistan, that they bring about an end to violence and that they must not become a tool for a "third country's" exploitation of Afghanistan.