Afghan security forces are now officially in charge of protecting their country from the insurgents whom the U.S.-led coalition of foreign troops has been fighting here for more than 11 years, President Hamid Karzai announced during a ceremony Tuesday, even as news broke that the Taliban were opening a long-discussed political office in Qatar, clearing a potential path to peace talks.
"This is the beginning of a new journey, so that our country, like every other country in the world, can rely on its own forces for security, manned by its own youth," Karzai said of the security handover. He was speaking during a ceremony at the sprawling new national defense university – an Afghan West Point – which is still under construction on the edge of Kabul on ground that first had to be cleared of mines. Joining him was NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"As your forces step forward across the country, the main effort of our forces is shifting from combat to support," Rasmussen said. "We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed, but we will no longer plan, execute or lead those operations. And by the end of 2014, our combat mission will be completed. At that time, Afghanistan will be fully secured by Afghans."
NATO would continue to support Afghanistan after next year with a new training, advising and assistance mission, he said.
Afterward, Karzai said he hoped the Taliban’s new office would indeed lead to peace talks. Afghanistan would send negotiators to Qatar without preconditions, he said. Still, Karzai expects that any talks begun there would quickly move onto Afghan soil, would be conducted in such a way that they end the violence in Afghanistan and wouldn’t be used by any other country to push its own interests.
The concerns of the United States and Pakistan should be considered, he said, but Afghanistan’s needs would come first.
The security transition announced Tuesday is a major milestone in the lengthy war, but it has sharply different meanings for the Afghan troops, the foreigners, the insurgents and the civilians.
The role of American and other NATO troops in the war now will be to provide the Afghan security forces with support such as training, close air support and casualty evacuation by air. That will keep some combat troops here until the end of 2014, on call if the Afghans need them.
The number of foreign troops, though, will continue to drop, with the 66,000 U.S. forces here expected to be halved by December.
A smaller contingent of troops is expected to remain after next year solely for training and support pending an agreement between foreign forces and the Afghan government.
"Last week, I was responsible for security here in Afghanistan, and today as a result of that ceremony, the responsibility is with the MOD and the MOI on behalf of President Karzai, and that is a significant change from yesterday to today," said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, referring to the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior, which control the national army and police forces.
For American troops, the war is now officially something most will experience mainly from inside massive bases, shielded from the fighting.
Their service here will look like it did during a visit by a reporter a few weeks ago to Helmand province. Helmand has been by far the most deadly place in the war for foreign troops, with more than 900 killed there, but now Afghans are almost fully in the lead for combat.
Hundreds of U.S. Marine outposts across the province, mainly small ones, had been closed, and the Marines were mainly staying on a handful of large, heavily secured bases, training Afghan troops and packing up equipment to ship home.
None of the conventional Marine units, officers there said, were performing the perilous combat patrols that for years had been part of the daily routine for many.
The modest number of troops going outside the bases included those manning supply convoys, clearing bombs from the roads, performing security patrols immediately outside the walls and in some cases accompanying Afghans on larger operations to call in air support or medical evacuation by air if needed. As a result, casualties had fallen sharply.
"For the Americans, what this is beginning to resemble more is the way the U.S. was involved in operations in the Philippines, or Colombia or El Salvador, and that is it’s more training, more ‘train-the-trainer’ missions than anything else," said Seth Jones, who served on the staff of the U.S. Special Operations commander in Afghanistan and is now associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp.
The Afghan army and police, meanwhile, began doing more of the fighting and the dying as they took the lead in more and more places across the country. About 3,400 soldiers and police officers were killed last year, a jump from about 1,950 the previous year, according to the Brookings Institution. That’s more than the total losses for the entire NATO-led coalition for the history of the war.
Afghan casualty records are kept by different ministries and can be difficult to piece together, but in the period from March 22 to May 22, at least 523 members of the national army, national police and border police forces were killed. That doesn’t include Afghan Local Police casualties, which also are substantial.
It compares with 64 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan for all of 2013 so far, according to icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s down from about 500 in 2010 and more than 400 in 2011. All told, more than 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed here since the war began in October 2001.
Now that Afghan government forces control the fight against the Taliban and the warm-months fighting season is well under way, it’s unclear how the battle is going, analysts said.
British Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the second in command of the NATO-led coalition, said he was confident that the Afghan security forces were able to handle the lead. The foreign forces, though, will have to help fill the gaps in the Afghans’ capabilities.
Carter citied several recent operations by Afghan security forces that were successful with little or no help from the International Security Assistance Force as evidence that they’re effective. He said it might be six to eight years, though, before the Afghan aviation forces reached their full capability.
Also, NATO, which helped build the Afghan national security forces to their full strength of more than 350,000, will have to help reduce the Afghan army’s attrition rate of 3 to 4 percent a month, which requires recruiting and training about 50,000 new soldiers a year, an unsustainable rate. It’s doing that by helping to introduce modern training and leave cycles for the Afghans troops and developing plans for cutting their heavy casualties.
Despite NATO leaders’ confidence in the Afghan forces, the number of insurgent attacks soared as the Afghans took the lead in more and more places. It leapt 47 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year, according to a report by the Afghan NGO Safety Office, which monitors violence in Afghanistan for nongovernmental organizations. And the pace of attacks hasn’t slowed, said Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
That may not be because the insurgents have been getting stronger, but rather a sign that they’re throwing as much as they can into the fight as the foreign forces drawn down, in part to make it easier to claim that they booted the foreigners out, she said.
There are mixed reports from across the country about security in the areas where the Afghan government forces have been in the lead awhile or have just taken it, Clark said. Her organization has received unconfirmed reports that the Afghan forces have ceded territory to the Taliban via mutual agreement in some places in the east and south. But in other places, the government troops are fighting fiercely, she said.
The withdrawal of foreign troops in some areas seems to have emboldened insurgents, who’ve been seen gathering in numbers that they never would have dared when NATO forces were around, she said.
Jones said it was true that the Afghan government forces had given away turf to the insurgents in some areas, including parts of Garmsir District in Helmand province. That’s important, he said, but perhaps less a concern for the United States than the larger numbers of foreign recruits that have begun showing up recently among the insurgents. If the government forces aren’t up to the task in key provinces in the east along the Pakistani border, significant numbers of terrorist training camps could be established there, he said.
"This should be an Afghan-led and Afghan-fought war, and I think that resonates and will increasingly resonate with Americans," Jones said.
"On the other hand, the reason the U.S. went to Afghanistan in the first place is the terrorism issue, and that is something to monitor closely."
It probably will be late fall, after the seasonal fighting has died down, before a proper assessment of how the Afghan national forces are doing is possible, Jones said.
All the talk of whether the government is holding its ground or the Taliban are gaining, Clark said, can be troubling.
A years-long standoff is hardly a victory for the civilians, she said, given that they probably would continue dying in large numbers.
Nearly 3,100 were killed or wounded in the first five months of this year, up 24 percent from the same period in 2012, Jan Kubis, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said last week.
"It’s all fairly horrific if you’re an Afghan civilian," Clark said. "I don’t think it’s good to indulge in this ‘Is the Taliban winning, is the Afghan government winning?’ That’s sort of the wrong question, because war is just so disastrous for anyone on the ground."