In a ceremony dubbed "more political theater than military handover," NATO forces Tuesday officially transferred power over armed forces to Afghanistan.
Speaking at a formal ceremony at an Afghan military training camp on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai described the handover as a "historic moment," in the twelve years since US and NATO forces declared war in the region.
About 2,000 people attended the ceremony including "dozens of Western ambassadors and senior Afghan and international officials" as well as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Reuters reports.
"We have kept to our roadmap. And we have kept to our timetable," Rasmussen declared before the ceremony, referring to an earlier agreement between Karzai and President Barack Obama that the transfer, dubbed "milestone 2013," would occur this spring.
However, senior officials admit that the transfer of power is largely symbolic and "nothing will change for foreign soldiers on the ground."
As the Guardian's Emma Graham-Harrison writes:
Foreigners will still have to provide helicopters and planes, healthcare and bomb disposal teams, intelligence, heavy artillery and logistics support, because Afghan forces are still desperately short in these areas.
Foreign troops will still be fighting on the ground in some areas for several months at least.
American forces, now at about 66,000, will likely maintain a presence of at least 32,000 throughout 2014, reports CNN. They continue:
The plan is to withdraw all combat troops but keep a residual force in the country to help train Afghans and carry out counterterrorism operations when needed.
The size of that force is still being discussed.
Gen. John Allen, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, recommended between 6,000 and 15,000 troops. But that figure was lowered to a range between 2,500 and 9,000, according to a defense official.
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The United States and NATO have pledged to continue to support and train Afghan forces in what Rasmussen deems a "new relationship," starting in 2015.
As Common Dreams contributor Dave Lindorff noted back in December when the "withdrawal" plans were announced:
Just to make it clear what we’re talking about here, 10,000 troops would represent an army half the size of the entire army of either the Netherlands or Denmark, two countries which currently have troops assigned to the NATO forces posted in Afghanistan as allies in the 12-year-long US war there.
So let’s get serious here. These 10,000 soldiers that Obama and the Pentagon are talking about stationing in Afghanistan after the war is “ended” in [...] are not really going to be trainers.
Besides, how do you “end” a war by simply having one side say it’s over, unless you actually do stop fighting and walk away? Certainly the invading side in a foreign war can call that war quits, but if the other side doesn’t, and the invader stays on the battlefield -- which in Afghanistan is the whole county -- you haven’t ended it at all. The other side will continue to hit you until you’re gone.
In other words, clearly that force of 10,000 US troops, whatever they are called officially, will be in a state of war, because there is no way that the Taliban in Afghanistan will quietly allow them to be there training an army to fight them, without taking the battle to the “trainers.”
"This ceremony changes nothing on the battlefield," adds Graeme Smith, Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group.
Marring the entire display, a suicide attack against a top politician detonated in the center of Kabul barely an hour before the ceremony. According to a government official, Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent Hazara politician, escaped unscathed from the attack but three people were killed and 21 wounded.
As was the case following the US withdrawal of Iraq, as Common Dreams editor Jon Queally writes, "the reality for life on the ground in the shadow of war appears precarious at best for most Afghans."
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Also Tuesday, Karzai announced a new round of peace talks between an Afghan council dedicated to peace and reconciliation and members of the Taliban.
"Afghanistan's High Peace Council will travel to Qatar to discuss peace talks with the Taliban," Karzai said in Kabul. "We hope that our brothers the Taliban also understand that the process will move to our country soon."