KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S.-led international coalition and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Tuesday that Afghan troops are now taking the lead on security in every province of the country, a milestone that was quickly marred by a new fatal attack in the capital.
At a formal ceremony at an Afghan military training camp on the outskirts of Kabul, Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told hundreds of military leaders and diplomats that the handoff sets the stage for the bulk of coalition of forces to leave Afghanistan by the end of the next year.
“Our country is in the process of a historic event, and from now on, always, all the security responsibility will be conducted and performed by our forces, and will be led by our own forces,” Karzai said.
The event marking the transfer of the remaining security districts, most of which are near the country’s volatile border with Pakistan, had been kept a closely guarded secret due to security concerns. Officials said it took days to secure the venue, at one of Afghanistan’s premiere military academies. Reporters were flown in by military helicopter.
Although the transfer ceremony was not itself attacked, as some officials had feared, a bomb exploded near the Afghan parliament building an hour before Karzai and Rasmussen spoke. The bomb, apparently detonated by remote control, targeted a high-profile Shiite member of parliament, Mohammad Mohaqiq.
Mohaqiq survived, but three others were killed and 30 people were wounded, authorities said.
The explosion reinforced the unease many Afghans feel as the U.S. military footprint continues to contract in their country amid a wave of attacks by the Taliban. At a news conference after the transfer ceremony, Karzai said he’s preparing to become engaged in preliminary peace talks with the militant group.
Office in Qatar
In the coming hours or days, the Afghan Taliban is expected to open an office in Qatar, giving the insurgency group a formal outlet for high-level talks, Karzai said. Foreign governments including the United States planned to take the lead in initiating the talks, Karzai said, but he will dispatch Afghan envoys to be part of the process. One of his first demands will be for the talks to move from Qatar to Afghanistan, Karzai said.
“Our source of concern is the foreign hands in it,” Karzai said. “We accept and agree with the (Taliban) office in Qatar. Our representatives will go to Qatar and enter into talks with the Taliban representatives, but we also hope the Taliban can recognize and realize these talks should come to Afghanistan.”
Tuesday’s ceremony capped a process that began 15 months ago when NATO began pushing Afghan forces into leading security roles, starting mainly with the capital and the relatively secure northwest. Now that the transfer is complete countrywide, Rasmussen said, coalition forces would fall back into support, advisory, and training roles.
“It has been tough. We have faced up to many challenges, and no doubt there will be more,” Rassmusen said. “We have kept to our road map, and we have kept to our timetable, and with your announcement we have now reached that milestone in our journey that marks the progress we have made.”
Despite the upbeat tone at the ceremony, there were signs of tension between Karzai and his American benefactors.
Karzai and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, chairman of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Transition Coordination Commission, repeatedly stressed they hope for additional high-powered weapons such as tanks and airplanes to combat what they view as threats from regional rivals, such as Pakistan.
U.S. military officials have argued that Afghanistan needs a military equipped to fight insurgencies before it invests in costlier hardware for conventional fights.
Rasmussen struck a reserved tone when asked about the matter, noting that NATO countries already are already supplying Afghanistan with weapons such as helicopters.
‘This is not just a question of providing equipment,” Rasmussen said. “It’s also about providing training and supervision so they can handle the advanced equipment.”
The Obama administration has said it would like to keep a residual troop presence in Afghanistan after NATO’s mandate here expires at the end of 2014, but Washington has yet to commit a specific number of troops, frustrating some military planners.