BC-AS--Afghanistan, 2nd Ld-Writethru,411< >US, NATO ceremonially end Afghan combat mission< >AP Photo MAH101, MAH105, MAH109, MAH104, MAH108, MAH110, MAH112, MAH107, MAH106, MAH115
KABUL // The United States and Nato ceremonially ended their 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan on Monday, despite transition plans running several months behind.
The new year will open with as many as 10,800 US troops still in Afghanistan, 1,000 more than President Barack Obama pledged.
Chuck Hagel, the US’ departing defence secretary said the president “has provided US military commanders the flexibility to manage any temporary force shortfall that we might experience for a few months”.
Mr Hagel was in Kabul as Nato’s US-led International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, which was in charge of combat operations, lowered its flag on Monday, formally ending deployment.
US general John F. Campbell, commander of the Isaf-Joint Command, said the mission will now transition to a training and support role for Afghanistan’s own security forces, which have led the fight against Taliban insurgents since mid-2013.
“The Afghan security forces are capable,” Mr Campbell, said. “They have to make some changes in the leadership which they’re doing, and they have to hold people accountable.”
But Mr Obama’s decision to keep more US troops in Afghanistan than planned underscores continuing tensions between military commanders concerned that Afghan forces aren’t ready to stave off the Taliban and a president determined to keep his promise to end America’s longest war.
The mission ends as the Taliban is increasing its attacks. Mr Obama recently broadened the mission of American forces that will remain in the country after 2014, allowing them to launch operations against both Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Violence continued in the country on Monday, as suicide bombers launched an assault on a police station in southern Kandahar province. Police killed three suicide bombers, said Samim Akhplwak, the spokesman for the provincial governor. He said casualty figures were unclear.
Mr Campbell said that Afghan security forces, including the army, police and local militias, were capable of securing the country despite record-high casualty figures that have risen 6.5 per cent this year, to 4,634 killed in action, compared to 4,350 in 2013. By comparison, some 3,500 foreign forces, including at least 2,210 American soldiers, have been killed since the war began in 2001.
From January 1, the coalition will maintain a force of 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of around 140,000 in 2011. There are currently around 15,000 troops in the country.
Up to 10,800 US troops will remain in Afghanistan for the first three months of next year as the new mission, Resolute Support, waits for Nato partners to deploy.
As a result, there will be little, if any, net drop in US troop numbers between now and December 31. By the end of 2015, however, the American troop total will shrink to 5,500, and drop to nearly zero by the end of 2016.
Monday’s ceremony was the first of two that will draw Nato’s combat mission to a close by December 28.
*Associated Press and Bloomberg
Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM