KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced at a ceremony on Tuesday that his country's armed forces are taking over the lead for security nationwide from the U.S.-led NATO coalition.
The handover of responsibility is a significant milestone in the nearly 12-year war and marks a turning point for American and NATO military forces, which will now move entirely into a supporting role. It also opens the way for their full withdrawal in 18 months.
"This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces," Karzai said at the ceremony, held at the new National Defense University built to train Afghanistan's future military officers.
Karzai said that in the coming months, coalition forces will gradually withdraw from Afghanistan's provinces as the country's security forces replace them.
In announcing the fifth and final phase of a process that began at a November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Karzai said "transition will be completed and Afghan security forces will lead and conduct all operations."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the coalition will help militarily if and when needed but will no longer plan, execute or lead operations.
Alliance training since 2009 dramatically increased the size of the Afghan National Security Forces, bringing them up from 40,000 men and women six years ago to about 352,000 today. After transition, coalition troops will move entirely into a supporting role - training and mentoring, and in emergency situations providing the Afghans backup in combat, mainly in the form of airstrikes and medical evacuation.
"Ten years ago, there were no Afghan national security forces. Five years ago, Afghan forces were a fraction of what they are today. Now you have 350,000 Afghan troops and police. A formidable force. And time and again, we have seen them dealing quickly and competently with complex attacks. Defeating the enemies of Afghanistan, and defending and protecting the Afghan people," Rasmussen said.
Afghans will now have the lead for security in all 403 districts of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Until now, they were responsible for 312 districts nationwide, where 80 percent of Afghanistan's population of nearly 30 million lives. Afghan security forces were until now carrying out 90 percent of military operations around the country.
Foreign forces will continue to support Afghans on the battlefield when they require it, but the Afghan army and police will be responsible for planning and leading military operations against the insurgency.
"As your forces step forward across the country, the main effort of our forces is shifting from combat to support. 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," Rasmussen said.
The handover paves the way for coalition forces - currently numbering about 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans - to leave. By the end of the year, the NATO force will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise. President Barack Obama has not yet said how many soldiers he will leave in Afghanistan along with NATO forces, but it is thought that it would be about 9,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from its allies.
"From 2015, a new chapter will begin. We need to sustain, and build on, the progress we have made. And NATO is ready to play its part, Rasmussen said. "Together with our partners, we are planning a new and different mission."
Called "Resolute Support," Rasmussen said the goal of the new mission "is to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. We will also play our part in the broader international efforts, to ensure the long-term sustainment of the Afghan security forces. This will be another visible demonstration that Afghanistan does not stand alone, now or in the future. "
The U.S. and its allies have already pledged to fund the Afghan forces in the immediate years after 2015.
The handover was marred by a botched bomb attack against an Afghan politician in another part of Kabul. The bombing killed three civilians.
Kabul deputy police chief Mohammad Daoud Amin said the blast was in the Pul-e-Surkh area of the western part of the city, which is miles (kilometers) away from the site of the handover ceremony attended by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A police officer named Asadullah said the target was the convoy of Mohammed Mohaqiq, a prominent ethnic Hazara lawmaker who is a former Cabinet member. Asadullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name, said he saw two dead bodies lying in the street and a police vehicle was destroyed in the blast.
Mohaqiq survived the blast, according to Nahim Lalai Hamidzai, another member of the Afghan parliament.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir, chief of the Kabul Criminal Investigation Division, said three people were killed by the bombing and another 30 were wounded - including six bodyguards.
"The roadside bomb targeted the Mohaqiq convoy, but he safely passed. One of his vehicles was damaged," Zahir said.
The leader of the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, Mohaqiq is a member of the National Front, which represents members of the former Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban before the U.S. invasion in 2001. The predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban persecuted the Hazara minority during their five-year rule that imposed a radical interpretation of Islamic law.
The Taliban insurgency has been pressing an intense campaign of violence in the run-up to Tuesday's security handover. The transition is a major milestone of the 12-year-old war, with the coalition insisting Afghan security forces it has been training for years are now strong enough to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban.
Amir Shah, Rahim Faiez and Kay Johnson contributed from Kabul.