KABUL — The 13-year NATO combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended Sunday with a ceremonial retirement of its green flag and a pledge by top officials of the U.S.-led coalition to remain reliable partners in Afghanistan’s unfinished war against the Taliban and other militant groups.
Scores of Afghan and foreign officials gathered to witness the symbolic shift to a new, much smaller NATO assistance and training mission. The event was held in a basketball gym inside NATO headquarters here in the Afghan capital and accompanied by a brass band and color guard.
“Our commitment to Afghanistan endures. . . . We are not walking away,” promised Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. commander of the outgoing International Security Assistance Force combat mission. He will lead the new NATO support mission, which technically begins at midnight on Dec. 31.
Campbell and other Western officials stressed that their chief function under the new mission, named Resolute Support, will be to advise, train and assist Afghan security forces. They said, however, that a separate “non-NATO” contingent of U.S. forces will participate in force protection, logistical support and counterterrorism activities.
The Taliban responded to the transition event with glee. In a lengthy statement issued by a Taliban spokesman Sunday night, the insurgent group gloated at the final departure of a “haughty” superpower that “thought it had already won the war and that the Mujaheddin would never . . . think of putting up a fight.”
The statement said the NATO withdrawal was proof that “the infidel powers who thought they would turn Afghanistan into their strategic colony” had been “pushed to the brink of defeat.”
The total number of international troops here, which peaked in 2009 at about 142,000, has gradually shrunk to about 17,000. Under Resolute Support, officials said, 12,500 to 13,500 NATO forces will remain in 2015, including thousands of American troops. Twenty-eight NATO allies and 14 partner nations will contribute in different ways, the alliance said. Officials said about 5,500 U.S. forces will be part of the second contingent, which will be based in Kabul.
Both Western and Afghan officials at the event described the shift in upbeat terms. They praised the dedication and bravery of Afghan security forces, now numbering about 350,000, and predicted that the Afghans will continue to wage a strong fight against Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents on their own.
Gen. Hans-Lothar Domröse, a senior NATO official based in Brussels, declared that Afghan forces have shown the “ability, will and confidence to defeat the enemy.” He said opinion polls show that 88 percent of Afghans have confidence in the national army and 72 percent in the national police. “Today begins a new chapter for NATO as an enduring partner of the Afghan government,” he said.
But the withdrawal of international combat support comes at an especially tense time for Afghanistan, with the Taliban aggressively testing the will of the new government amid the drawdown. Since early November, Taliban forces have waged an unprecedented terror campaign in the capital and made steady inroads in several provinces, such as Helmand, where U.S. and British forces once held sway.
In addition, the deadly Dec. 11 siege of a military-run school in northwest Pakistan by Islamist militants has unleashed a flurry of action by Afghan, Pakistani and foreign forces, including U.S. drone strikes, in the volatile border area where both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban insurgents are active.
Early this month, in response to these concerns, the Obama administration said it will leave up to 1,000 more troops than originally planned in Afghanistan beyond year’s end. Also, a change in the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement, signed by Afghan officials in September and ratified by parliament in November, allows U.S troops to engage in counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and other insurgents.
Another problem is that three months after the installation of a national unity government composed of President Ashraf Ghani and top electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah, they have yet to form a Cabinet, leaving a worrisome leadership void in the defense and interior ministries as well as the police intelligence department.
At the transition ceremony Sunday, the only Afghan official to speak was the civilian national security adviser, Hanif Atmar. He expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by NATO forces. About 3,500 international troops have been killed and tens of thousands wounded since 2001.
“We recognize that you carried on the fight for us when we were not ready,” he said. “We pray for the fallen, for your sons and daughters who died on our soil.”
Atmar insisted that Afghan forces are now fully ready to defend their country, but he stressed that they cannot do it without foreign assistance. “We don’t want or expect your support to be indefinite, but we need it now more than ever,” he said.
In interviews Sunday, several Afghan security officials expressed similar concerns, saying their ground forces are motivated but poorly equipped and heavily reliant on foreign troops for air support — especially bombing raids — in tough encounters with the insurgents.
This year has accounted for a record number of casualties among Afghan forces, totaling more than 5,000 military and police personnel. Desertion rates continue to be high, and Afghan officials say reducing casualties will be crucial to maintaining current force levels.
“We have been controlling security for the past year and a half, and we will continue to fight bravely, but the enemy knows we don’t have the air force or helicopters, or enough artillery and heavy weapons,” said Gen. Syed Malik, an army commander in Helmand. “We need those to lower our casualty rate. Once we have those, I assure you we will defend Afghanistan very well.”