KABUL (Reuters) - An attack on a police headquarters and a drone strike that killed six Taliban fighters were sharp reminders of the problems facing Afghanistan’s fledgling military as the joint command of foreign forces disbanded on Monday.
The Afghan government and the departing NATO troops have tried to put a brave face on the security situation, despite the past 12 months having been the bloodiest since 2001, with thousands of Afghans dying in fighting.
The Taliban has again stepped up attacks across the country as well as in the capital, Kabul, sensing an opportunity as foreign troops wind up their combat missions by Dec 31.
The International Security Assistance Joint Command, which ran the coalition combat operations, held a flag-lowering ceremony on Monday to hand over to a much reduced international support and training mission that begins on Jan. 1.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, outgoing chief of the joint command, said he was confident the Afghan police and army could prevent the Taliban regaining territory next year.
“This country is safer and more prosperous than ever,” he said. “The insurgents have been beaten back and the Afghan National Security Forces are carrying the fight to the enemy.”
The back page of the program for the ceremony belied this projection of safety and security, however. It advised attendees to lie on the ground if insurgents launched a rocket attack.
Civilian casualties were up by 24 percent in the first half of the year to 4,853, according to the United Nations. About 4,600 members of the Afghan security forces were killed as of November, up more than 6 percent over the corresponding period of 2013.
The latest in a spate of NATO drone strikes since last week killed 6 Taliban fighters on Monday, in the north-eastern province of Nuristan, the region’s acting governor told Reuters.
The bombing was in a district the governor said is almost entirely in the hands of insurgent groups, except in the district headquarters.
“A drone strike killed six Taliban in Wantwaigal district of Nuristan,” acting governor Hafiz Abdul Qayyum said, adding that three of the casualties were identified as Afghans.
At the other end of the Central Asian country, Taliban fighters backed by a suicide bomber attacked a police headquarters, killing five people in the southern province of Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan for five years.
A policeman and four civilians died in the attack that started when a suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform detonated a carload of explosives at the main gate of the compound in Kandahar’s Maiwand district.
Four heavily armed gunmen then forced their way inside, government spokesman Sameem Khpalwak said. The fighting in Maiwand lasted for two hours, before security forces killed the attackers.
The Taliban emerged from Kandahar in the 1990s and went on to rule the country until being toppled by the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It has been seeking to re-establish a hard-line Islamic state ever since.
Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used a farewell visit to Kabul at the weekend to announce 1,000 more U.S. troops would stay several months longer than planned.
International forces in Afghanistan boosted their numbers to about 140,000 in 2010 troops with the aim of wresting control southern territory back from the Taliban. By Jan. 1, that number will be about 12,500, comprising mostly trainers and advisers.
Additional reporting by Syed Sarwar Amani in Kandahar, Mohammad Anwar in Asadabad, Mirwais Harooni in Kabul, Phil Stewart in Kuwait and Kylie MacLellan in London; editing by Ralph Boulton