KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S.-led troops handed complete control of security to Afghanistan authorities Tuesday – an act of faith in country’s fledgling police and army in the face of near-constant insurgent attacks.
The formal transfer of responsibility is major milestone in the process of withdrawal from the country, 12 years after NATO-led mission ISAF began its mission to end Taliban rule.
However, a botched car bomb that killed at least three civilians just before the official handover ceremony raising renewed questions about how the country’s 352,000-strong security forces will tackle the militant threat.
Most foreign combat troops will leave the country by the end of 2014, but international funding and humanitarian aid will continue - prolonging the political headache for President Barack Obama over America's involvement in the conflict.
“Today is a day for all Americans to take pride in the hard work our service members and their civilian counterparts are performing every day in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that called Tuesday’s handover a “critical milestone.”
Ordinary Afghans may be harder to convince.
“It is a good decision that the Afghan forces are taking the responsibility because it is their own country and they are the one who should be responsible for the security,” said Kabul restaurant owner Mohammad Faried, adding: “I still have doubts. If they do not have good weapons it will be hard for them to keep peace and stability in the country especially in the villages.”
The U.S. and its allies have yet to decide exactly how long troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and what their role should be.
Earlier this month, retired four-star general John Allen called on the U.S. to keep a larger force in Afghanistan than the 8,000-12,000 reportedly being considered by U.S. officials.
Among the problems is a high desertion rate in local police forces, meaning thousands of new recruits are needed each month.
A Congressional research report published in April said the Obama administration was also concerned that “weak and corrupt governance” in Afghanistan would hamper the fight against the Taliban.
In additional The Afghan army has suffered a sharp rise in casualties since it began slowly assuming greater control of security, the BBC reported. By comparison, international coalition casualties have been steadily falling since 2010, it said.
Afghans are now responsible for security in all districts of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, completing a transfer of power from NATO that began in 2011.
“Is a great day for us, not only for the Afghan government but also for the Afghan nation,” said Janan Mosazai, spokesperson for the country's ministry of foreign affairs. “It is a big day of honor.”
The U.S. military is by far the single biggest group within ISAF’s steadily-shrinking force of about 100,000 foreign troops [PDF link here.]
The security handover means the remaining US-led forces will play only a supporting role, providing help if needed but no longer taking the lead in tackling insurgent attacks.
"We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at Tuesday’s ceremony. “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.”
As combat troops are scaled down, the U.S. focus will shift to Special Operations forces who will advise the Afghan military on hunting down top insurgent or terrorist leaders.
On any day in Afghanistan, about 60 Special Operations teams are working with Afghan local police forces to provide security in villages, according to a New York Times report.
The target of Tuesday's suicide car bomb attack was prominent lawmaker and Shia Muslim cleric Mohammed Mohaqiq, police at the scene told The Associated Press.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir, chief of the Kabul Criminal Investigation Division, told the AP three people were killed by the bombing and another 30 were wounded — including six bodyguards. Mohaqiq survived the attack, Reuters reported.
In March, Karzai publicly criticized the American presence in his country, causing embarrassment to U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, during his first visit to Kabul in the new role.
NBC News’ Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.