NATO hands over security to Afghans

London, June 18 (IANS) NATO Tuesday handed over security to Afghan forces for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

At a ceremony in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that from Wednesday "our own security and military forces will lead all the security activities", BBC reported.

Tuesday's ceremony saw the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) hand over control of the last 95 districts in a transition process that began in 2011.

The last remaining districts include 13 in Kandahar province - where the Taliban movement began - and 12 each in Nangarhar, Khost and Paktika, along the border with Pakistan.

International troops will remain in Afghanistan till the end of 2014, providing military back-up when needed.

Meanwhile, sources close to the Taliban have told the BBC that the outfit was opening an office in Qatar capital Doha, possibly Tuesday.

Karzai said he would be sending representatives to Qatar to discuss peace with the outfit.

Karzai called it an historic day and a moment of personal pride.

"This has been one of my greatest desires and pursuits, and I am glad that I, as an Afghan citizen and an Afghan president, have reached this objective today," BBC quoted Karzai as saying.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghan forces were taking up the role with "remarkable resolve" but said there was still 18 months of hard work ahead for ISAF troops.

"We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed, but we will no longer plan, execute or lead those operations, and by the end of 2014 our combat mission will be completed," Fogh Rasmussen said.

The number of Afghan security forces has increased from less than 40,000 six years ago to nearly 350,000 at present.

ISAF currently has about 97,000 troops in Afghanistan from 50 contributing nations, the bulk of whom - around 68,000 - are from the US.

By the end of 2014, all combat troops will leave and may be replaced by smaller forces that will only train and advise.

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