KABUL (AFP) - NATO formally ended its war in Afghanistan on Sunday, holding a low-key ceremony in Kabul after 13 years of conflict that have left the country in the grip of worsening insurgent violence.
The event was arranged in secret due to the threat of Taleban strikes in the Afghan capital, which has been hit by repeated suicide bombings and gun attacks over recent years.
"Together... we have lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future," NATO commander US General John Campbell told assembled soldiers. "You've made Afghanistan stronger and our countries safer."
On January 1, the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat mission, which has suffered 3,485 military deaths since 2001, will be replaced by a NATO "training and support" mission. About 12,500 foreign troops staying in Afghanistan will not be involved in direct fighting, but will assist the Afghan army and police in their battle against the Taleban, who ruled from 1996 until 2001.
When numbers peaked in 2011, about 130,000 troops from 50 nations were part of the NATO military alliance. "I hope you take great pride in the positive impact you've made and will continue to make upon the Afghan people," Campbell said in a speech released by ISAF on Twitter as live broadcasts were banned for security reasons.
Campbell folded up the ISAF flag and unveiled the flag of the new mission, named Resolute Support.
Sunday's ceremony - held in a sports hall at NATO headquarters - completed the gradual handover of responsiblity to the 350,000-strong Afghan forces, who have been in charge of nationwide security since last year.
But recent bloodshed has undermined claims that the insurgency is weakening and has highlighted fears that the international intervention has failed as Afghanistan faces spiralling violence.
The United Nations says that civilian casualties hit a record high in 2014, jumping by 19 percent with 3,188 civilians killed by the end of November. Afghan's police and army have also suffered a grim death toll, with fatalities soaring to more than 4,600 in the first 10 months of 2014 - far higher than all ISAF deaths since 2001.
- Taleban strength -
"The US and NATO mission was an absolute failure as today's ceremony shows," Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP. "They are fleeing from Afghanistan. They have not reached their goals in defeating the Afghan mujahideen."
US and Afghan commanders insist the national security forces can hold the line against the Taleban despite concerns of a repeat of Iraq, where an American-trained army virtually collapsed in the face of an extremist onslaught.
"Our sons and daughters of ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) are in the lead, fighting to protect security interests. God willing, they will prevail," national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar said at the ceremony.
Since 2001, billions of dollars of aid have been spent in Afghanistan on new schools, hospitals, roads and promoting women's rights, but corruption has been endemic and progress limited even in the cities.
This year's presidential election, which was meant to be the keystone legacy of the development effort, was marred by fraud and a prolonged stand-off between the two poll rivals that fanned further unrest. Ashraf Ghani eventually emerged as the new president in a power-sharing deal with Abdullah Abdullah. But their "unity government" has failed to appoint any new ministers three months after taking power.
Ghani hopes to bring peace to Afghanistan after decades of conflict, saying he is open to talks with any insurgent group. Hamid Karzai, president from 2001 until 2014, opened preliminary contacts with the Taleban but they collapsed acrimoniously last year.
The US will continue to provide some air support for the Afghan military, and may extend operations if required to prevent rapid Taliban advances. "In just a few days, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over," US President Barack Obama said in his Christmas Day address. "Our longest war will come to a responsible end."
Recent insurgent targets in Kabul have included foreign guesthouses, diplomatic convoys and Afghan army buses.