US-led coalition marks end of 'longest war' in Afghanistan
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The US and NATO held a ceremony in Kabul on Sunday to mark the end of a 13-year war that drove the Taliban from power but left vast swathes of the country in the grip of insurgent violence.
The event was arranged in secret due to the threat of Taliban strikes in the Afghan capital, which has been hit by repeated suicide bombings and gun attacks over recent years.
On January 1, the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat force will be replaced by a NATO "training and support" mission.
Some 12,500 foreign troops will remain in Afghanistan as part of the mission, code-named “Resolute Support”. They will not be involved in direct fighting, but will assist the Afghan army and police in the battle against the Taliban, who ruled from 1996 until 2001.
"In just a few days, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over," US President Barack Obama said in his Christmas Day address. "Our longest war will come to a responsible end."
When numbers peaked in 2011, about 130,000 troops from 50 nations were part of the NATO military alliance, which has suffered 3,485 military deaths since 2001.
Sunday's ceremony completes the gradual handover of responsiblity to the 350,000-strong Afghan forces, who have been in charge of nationwide security since the middle of last year.
But recent bloodshed has undermined claims that the insurgency is weakening and has highlighted fears that the international intervention has failed to bring peace to Afghanistan.
The United Nations says that civilian casualties hit a record high in 2014, jumping by 19 percent with 3,188 civilians killed by the end of November.
Afghan's police and army have also suffered a grim death toll on the battlefield, with fatalities soaring to more than 4,600 in the first 10 months of 2014 -- far higher than all ISAF deaths since 2001.
Recent Taliban targets in Kabul have included foreign guesthouses, diplomatic convoys and Afghan army buses.
Earlier this month, a teenage suicide bomber killed several people at a high school in Kabul, where the French Cultural Centre was hosting a theatre performance.
"The US and NATO mission was an absolute failure as today's ceremony shows," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP. "They have not reached their goals in defeating the Afghan mujahideen, but they are keeping some forces here to reach their vicious aims."
US commanders insist Afghan security forces can hold the line against the Taliban despite concerns of a repeat of Iraq, where an American-trained army virtually collapsed in the face of a jihadist onslaught.
US forces will continue to provide some air support for the Afghan military, and may extend operations if required to prevent rapid Taliban advances.
Since 2001, billions of dollars of aid have been spent in Afghanistan on new schools, hospitals, roads and promoting women's rights, but corruption has been endemic and progress limited even in the cities.
The country’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, hopes to bring peace to Afghanistan after decades of conflict, saying he is open to talks with any insurgent group.
His predecessor Hamid Karzai, who was president from 2001 until 2014, opened preliminary contacts with the Taliban, but they collapsed acrimoniously last year.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)