LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - In the end, British and U.S. armored vehicles only drove a few kilometers outside the capital of one of Afghanistan’s most violent cities, but their departure was heavy with symbolism as they marked a security handover to Afghan forces.
Afghans from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province and one of the focal points of the fight against the Taliban over the past year, lined the streets and handed bouquets of flowers to the departing troops during a handover ceremony marked more by symbolism than substance.
Lashkar Gah is one of seven areas to be handed over to Afghan police and soldiers this week in the first phase of a gradual transition process that will culminate with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
It is also the most contentious of the seven areas, with most of the others peaceful by comparison and some, such as Bamiyan and Panjshir, long regarded as anti-Taliban redoubts.
The heavy vehicles only drove a few kilometers from Lashkar Gah to a sprawling NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base outside the bustling city and will remain heavily involved in fighting elsewhere in Helmand.
But the handover at least offers hope to NATO countries, who are tiring of the long and expensive war after suffering hundreds of casualties that have helped turn the public at home against the conflict.
ISAF had wanted only a low-key ceremony, if anything at all, to mark the transfer of security duties in Lashkar Gah to Afghan police and army, arguing transition is a continuing process rather than a one-day event.
But Afghan officials insisted on commemorating the occasion in style. VIPs such as Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the security transition, flew down from Kabul to join Helmand governor Gulab Mangal and an array of Afghan army and police officers.
U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen, the new commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and U.S. Major General John Toolan, commander of ISAF Regional Command Southwest, also attended.
Security was tight at the event after a rogue police officer poisoned and killed seven Afghan policemen near Lashkar Gah on Monday and a bomb exploded there on Tuesday.
Fears that the Taliban might stage more violence to disrupt the ceremony proved unfounded and it passed peacefully.
At a civilian ceremony, Afghan and international officials gave long speeches marking the handover, with Afghan officials fulsomely thanking ISAF for its efforts. Afghan elders in the audience then stepped up to be given new turbans before the audience filed out to watch a military parade.
U.S. Marines, British troops and at least one Danish soldier stood at attention on one side of the avenue lined with Afghan flags. Facing them was a line of smartly turned-out Afghan soldiers and police officers, wearing helmets or berets and holding AK-47 and M-16 rifles.
The ISAF soldiers then turned and got into nine heavily armored vehicles designed to protect them from the roadside bombs that are an ever-present threat in Helmand.
Afghans in traditional dress gave bouquets of flowers to U.S. and British soldiers who walked in front of each vehicle.
Brigadier Ed Davis, commander of British troops in Helmand, shook hands with Brigadier-General Mohammed Angar, the Helmand police chief, to congratulate him on his new responsibilities.
“Be proud, this is a proud day for you, for your police force and for your country,” Davis told Angar.
In a message to ISAF, Mangal recalled meeting Lucy Aldridge during a visit to Britain. Her son William, 18, was killed in a bomb blast in Helmand in 2009.
He was the youngest of about 380 British soldiers to have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
“I said to her one day you will come to see what your son made possible. The government and the Afghan forces in Helmand will keep this promise,” Mangal said.
Editing by Paul Tait