Ahmad Nazar, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan forces have taken over the lead from the U.S.-led NATO coalition for security nationwide, President Hamid Karzai announced Tuesday in a significant milestone in the 12-year war.
The announcement came amid a grim reminder of Afghanistan's daily violence. A few miles from where Karzai was speaking a bomb targeted a prominent lawmaker, missed him but killed three civilians.
In another key announcement, Karzai said he will soon send representatives to the Gulf state of Qatar to discuss peace with the Taliban. The talks in Doha would follow the planned opening of a Taliban political office in the Arab country.
The handover of responsibility marks a turning point for American and NATO military forces, which will now move entirely into a supporting role. It also opens the way for their full withdrawal in 18 months.
"This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces," Karzai said at the ceremony, held at the new National Defense University built to train Afghanistan's future military officers.
On the ground, this means U.S. and other foreign combat troops will not be directly carrying the fight to the insurgency, but will advise and back up as needed with air support and medical evacuations.
The transition also comes at a time when violence is at levels matching the worst in 12 years, fueling some Afghans' concerns that their forces aren't ready.
Karzai said that in the coming months, coalition forces will gradually withdraw from Afghanistan's provinces as the country's security forces replace them.
In announcing the fifth and final phase of a process that began at a November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Karzai said "transition will be completed and Afghan security forces will lead and conduct all operations."
He also said he would send representatives of his High Peace Council to Doha for meetings with Taliban representatives once their office is open.
"We are hopeful that if the opening of the office is today or if tomorrow the negotiation for peace starts sooner between the High Peace Council and the Taliban," Karzai told reporters after the ceremony.
Karzai visited Qatar last week and discussed his country's stalled peace process and the possible opening of the Taliban office. Both Afghanistan and the United States support the opening as part of an effort to rekindle talks with the insurgent group. But first, Kabul and Washington say, the Taliban must renounce all ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and accept Afghanistan's constitution.
"We are hopeful that after starting negotiations in Qatar, immediately the negotiations and all peace process should move into Afghanistan. Afghanistan shouldn't be center of the discussions outside of the country," Karzai said.
The Taliban have for years refused to speak to the government or the Peace Council, set up by Karzai three years ago, because they considered them to be American "puppets." Taliban representatives have instead talked to American and other Western officials in Doha and other places, mostly in Europe.
But there are indications the Taliban sent a message to Karzai late last month through the United States that they were now willing to talk to the peace council, and that American officials were trying to find ways to facilitate how the talks would take place.
"We don't have any immediate preconditions for talks between the Afghan peace council and the Taliban, but we have principles laid down," Karzai said, adding that they include bringing an end to violence and for talks to be moved to Afghanistan so they are not exploited by other countries.
Karzai also lauded the work of NATO to help Afghan forces reach the point where his military is ready to take responsibility for the country's security.
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