Flags were lowered at Kabul airport Monday as the US-led NATO force in Afghanistan held a ceremony to mark the closure of its combat command centre after 13 years of fighting the Taliban.
NATO’s combat mission will end on December 31 although some troops will remain to support the Afghan army and police, who have taken on responsibility for suppressing worsening Islamist violence nationwide.
At the ceremonial closure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command headquarters, which was based at Kabul airport, the force’s US commander praised the strides made in handing over the mission.
“This is a historic transformation and reflects the progress that our coalition has made with our Afghan partners,” General John Campbell said.
“As the Afghan national security forces have become increasingly capable, we shift our focus from combat operations to building (Afghan) systems and processes to ensure long term sustainability.”
Campbell told NATO personnel: “You’ve done your job well, so well, that you’ve worked yourself out of a job.”
However, concern is growing for Afghan stability as the NATO military presence declines, with the national security forces enduring record casualties in combat this year and following a series of high-profile Taliban attacks in Kabul.
About 130,000 NATO troops were fighting in Afghanistan in 2010 at the peak of the foreign intervention, after the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime that sheltered Al-Qaeda.
The NATO support force taking over on January 1 will be 13,000 strong, made up of mainly US, German and Italian troops.
Abdullah Abdullah, the number two in the Afghan government, said Sunday that NATO troops were pulling out too soon.
“It is too abrupt,” Abdullah told the UK’s Sunday Times.
“We need air support for the medical evacuation of casualties, intelligence and fast jets.”
A main ceremony marking the official end of NATO’s combat mission is scheduled before December 31, but the exact date has not yet been announced.