Afghanistan ends 2014 with mix of violence, hope
KABUL: Afghanistan ended 2014 with a mixture of violence and hope on Wednesday, as a Taleban attack was thwarted, a policeman gunned down his comrades and one of the country’s leaders said he had convinced hundreds of insurgents to lay down their arms and support peace efforts.
Wednesday marked the final day of the US and NATO’s 13-year combat mission, which began with the invasion that overthrew the Taleban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The last French troops in Afghanistan held a ceremony in Kabul on Wednesday to mark the end of their deployment after NATO combat operations closed down and as a new “train and support” mission takes over.
About 150 French soldiers who had been helping run the military airport handed over responsibility to a Turkish unit which will operate under the new NATO mission.
NATO’s war in Afghanistan formally ended on Sunday, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was replaced by the US-led follow-up mission “Resolute Support.”
Afghanistan’s own 350,000-strong forces will officially take responsibility for security starting Thursday. The insurgency has been testing the resolve of the army and police, who officials say are holding their ground even as the number of attacks increases and casualties soar.
This year was the deadliest of the war for government forces and civilians, with around 5,000 Afghan soldiers and police killed, officials have said. An estimated 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, the highest annual toll since the UN started keeping figures in 2008.
In much of the south and east, government forces are facing off against the Taleban without the assistance of coalition air support or medical evacuations. They have taken heavy casualties but have thus far prevented the Taleban from seizing large swaths of territory. Interior Ministry spokesman Seddiq Seddiqi said the insurgents had “failed to capture even one district.”
Afghan forces may also receive a boost from warming ties with neighboring Pakistan. After the school massacre in the Pakistani town of Peshawar earlier this month, in which more than 140 people were killed, mainly children, the two US allies vowed to work together to combat insurgents on both sides of the porous border.
President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September after a contested election, has said he wants to bring peace to his country after more than 30 years of continual war, and has bolstered ties with China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as part of an effort to isolate the Taleban and bring them to the negotiating table.
First Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum said Wednesday that he had reached an agreement with some 300 Taleban fighters in the northern Jawzjan province to lay down arms.
“All the people who oppose the government should support the government and join in the peace process,” he said in a statement.
The fighting continued elsewhere in the country, however. In the eastern Nangahar province gunmen shot dead a policeman and two civilians after security forces stopped the car and motorcycle in which they were traveling, both of which were loaded with explosives. Provincial police chief Gen. Fazel Ahmad Sherzad said police suspected that they were on their way to attack government offices in Batikot district, near the Pakistani border.
In central Uruzgan province, also a hotbed of insurgent activity, a policeman killed three of his fellow officers and wounded another five while they ate dinner on Tuesday, said the governor’s spokesman, Dost Mohammad Nayab. The gunman fled after the shooting, he said, adding that the motive of the attack was not yet known.
France, which withdrew all its combat troops from the country two years ago, lost 89 soldiers and saw 700 injured in the war since 2001.
The conflict against the Taleban still rages across Afghanistan, and an estimated 17,000 foreign soldiers will stay on to assist the local police and army, who face a major challenge as the international military presence declines.
“The threat is still present, insurgents continue to be active, but what has been accomplished in 13 years is considerable in terms of governance, development, security,” said General Gratien Maire, second in command of the French military.
The soldiers could leave with “the satisfaction of a duty well done” he said.
The foreign force next year will consist of the 12,500-strong NATO mission, most of them US troops, and a US counter-terrorism operation outside the NATO remit, though final numbers remain unclear.