KABUL - The United States and NATO formally ended their war in Afghanistan on Sunday with a ceremony at their military headquarters in Kabul as the insurgency they fought for 13 years remains as ferocious and deadly as at any time since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban regime following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The symbolic ceremony marked the end of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which will transition to a supporting role with 13,500 soldiers, most of them American, starting Thursday.
Gen. John Campbell, commander of ISAF, rolled up and sheathed the green and white ISAF flag and unfurled the flag of the new international mission, called Resolute Support.
“Resolute Support will serve as the bedrock of an enduring partnership” between NATO and Afghanistan, Campbell told an audience of Afghan and international military officers and officials, as well as diplomats and journalists.
He paid tribute to the international and Afghan troops who have died fighting the insurgency, saying: “The road before us remains challenging but we will triumph.”
From Thursday, the new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan’s military, with the U.S. accounting for almost 11,000 members of the residual force.
“Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is on vacation with his family.
President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September, signed bilateral security agreements with Washington and NATO allowing the enduring military presence. The move has led to a spike in violence as the Taliban have claimed it as an excuse to step up operations aimed at destabilizing his government.
ISAF was set up after the U.S.-led invasion as an umbrella for the coalition of around 50 nations that provided troops and took responsibility for security across the country.
It ends with 2,224 American soldiers killed, according to an AP tally, out of a total of some 3,500 foreign troop deaths.
The mission peaked at 140,000 troops in 2010 with a surge ordered by Obama to root out the insurgents operating in strategically important regions, notably in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban had its capital from 1996 to 2001.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called Sunday’s event a “defeat ceremony” and said the insurgents’ fight will continue.
“Since the invasion in 2001 until now, these events have been aimed at changing public opinion, but we will fight until there is not one foreign soldier on Afghan soil and we have established an Islamic state,” he said.
Obama recently expanded the remit of the U.S. forces remaining in the country, allowing them to extend their counterterrorism operations to Taliban, as well as al-Qaida, and to provide ground and air support for the Afghan forces when necessary for at least the next two years.
In a tacit recognition that international military support is still essential for Afghan forces, National Security Adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar told the gathered ISAF leaders: “We need your help to build the systems necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of the critical capabilities of our forces.”
Afghans have mixed feelings about the drawdown of foreign troops, many believing that with the deteriorating security situation their presence is needed to back up the Afghan effort to bring peace after more than three decades of continual war.
“At least in the past 13 years we have seen improvements in our way of life — freedom of speech, democracy, the people generally better off financially,” said 42-year-old shopkeeper Gul Mohammad.
“But we do need the foreign troops to stay here at least until our own forces are strong enough, while our economy strengthens, while our leaders try to form a government,” he said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that Afghanistan’s 350,000-strong security force is ready to take on the insurgency alone, despite complaints by officials that they lack the necessary assets, such as air support, medical evacuation and intelligence.
In a statement Sunday, Stoltenberg said that ISAF’s mandate was “carried out at great cost but with great success.”
“We have made our own nations safer by denying safe haven to international terrorists. We have made Afghanistan stronger by building up from scratch strong security forces. Together we have created the conditions for a better future for millions of Afghan men, women and children,” he said.
As Afghan forces assume sovereignty, the country is without a Cabinet three months after Ghani’s inauguration, and economic growth is near zero due to the reduction of the international military and aid juggernauts. The United States spent more than $100 million on reconstruction in Afghanistan, on top of the $1 trillion war.
This year is set to be the deadliest of the war, according to the United Nations, which expects civilian casualties to hit 10,000 for the first time since the agency began keeping records in 2008. It says that most of the deaths and injuries are caused by Taliban attacks.
In the latest insurgent violence in eastern Wardak province, two teenage boys were killed late Saturday when a rocket was fired near a children’s volleyball match in Nirkh district, an official said. Another five children, aged between 11 and 14 years old, were wounded by shrapnel, said the governor’s spokesman. He blamed the Taliban.
In Kapisa, also in the east, Gov. Abdul Saboor Wafa’s office said eight insurgents were killed Saturday night in an army counterinsurgency operation.
This has also been a deadly year for Afghanistan’s security forces — army, paramilitary and police — with around 5,000 deaths recorded so far. Most of those deaths, or around 3,200, have been policemen, according to Karl Ake Roghe, the outgoing head of EUPOL, the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan, which funds and trains a police force of 157,000.
Roghe said that while the Taliban have stretched their presence, the methodology has not changed, indicating a lack of insurgent military capacity despite the rise in attacks.
“They make a lot of damage, they send gunmen and suicide bombers to blow up the front wall and then they are immediately killed, so they achieve nothing,” he said.