Massoud Hossaini / AP

US, NATO formally end Afghan combat mission

About 13,000 coalition troops to stay in country to train Afghan forces, assist in missions against Taliban, Al-Qaeda

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan formally ended its combat mission on Sunday, more than 13 years after an international alliance ousted the Taliban government for sheltering the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on American cities.

"Today marks an end of an era and the beginning of a new one," said U.S. General John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), at the ceremony marking the end of the mission held at the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. "We will continue to invest in Afghanistan's future," Campbell said at the ceremony, during which he rolled up the coalition's flag.

Details of Sunday's ceremony were withheld until the last moment for fear the insurgents might attempt an attack with rockets or mortars, according to the ISAF.

About 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, will remain in the country under a new, two-year mission named "Resolute Support" that will continue the coalition's training of Afghan security forces. The Afghan army and police are struggling to fight against Taliban militants who this year killed record numbers of Afghans.

Or, as President Barack Obama said in a Sunday statement on the end of the combat mission, "Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country."

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced earlier this month that 1,000 more soldiers than originally planned would remain in Afghanistan in 2015. Additional troops were necessary because planned troop commitments by NATO allies had been slow to materialize, not because of a marked resurgence in attacks by the Taliban, Hagel said.

In addition to training, American soldiers have also been authorized to hunt the "remnants of Al-Qaeda" in 2015, despite the formal end of the combat mission, the New York Times reported last month. After the Pentagon demanded troops be allowed to fulfill their remaining missions, Obama authorized American air strikes to support the Afghan military as well as ground troops to occasionally assist Afghan soldiers in operations linked to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.

Since 2001, nearly 3,500 foreign soldiers have died in the Afghan war, including more than 2,200 Americans. The late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had strong ties to the Taliban, who let him and other members of his global militant network hide in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have launched increasingly deadly attacks in the past year. Nearly 3,200 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict between the militant group and the army in 2014, and more than 4,600 Afghan army and police died in Taliban attacks.

For Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, keeping government control of territory and preventing security from further deteriorating are top priorities. Although former president Hamid Karzai defied U.S. pressure by declining to sign a security pact that would allow 10,000 American troops who remained in the country past 2014 and to be immune to prosecution, Ghani agreed to sign deal in September. 

"My trust with America is not good," Karzai said in November last year as the U.S. and a council of Afghan elders called the Loya Jirga pressured him to sign the security pact. "I don't trust them and they don't trust me."

But Karzai's successor Ghani said at his inauguration in September hours after his swearing in ceremony, "security is the main demand of our people."

"We are tired of war," Ghani said. "Our message is peace, (but) this doesn't mean we are weak."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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