KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — American and NATO troops closed their operational command in Afghanistan on Monday, lowering flags in a ceremony to mark the formal end of their combat mission in a country still mired in war 13 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime for harboring those responsible for 9/11.
The closing of the command, which oversaw the day-to-day operations of coalition combat forces, is one of the final steps in a transition to a support and training role that begins Jan. 1. But with President Barack Obama's recent move authorizing U.S. forces in Afghanistan to carry out military operations against Taliban and al-Qaida targets, America's longest war will in fact continue for at least another two years.
Obama's decision to give American forces a more active role than previously envisioned suggests the U.S. is still concerned about the Afghan government's ability to fight. And agreements signed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to allow U.S. and NATO troops to remain in the country are seen as a red line by the Taliban, further narrowing any hope of peace talks.
Not only are the Taliban a resilient insurgency, a new generation of extremists inspired by Osama bin Laden threatens the entire region. American forces are now also involved in a burgeoning military campaign against Islamic State group militants in Syria and Iraq, where Obama had hoped to end combat operations three years ago.
As NATO's International Security Assistance Force's Joint Command lowered its flag in the capital, the Taliban carried out yet another bloody attack, this time killing a police officer and four civilians at a police station in southern Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that the group would continue to fight "until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan."
"The Americans want to extend their mission in Afghanistan, the motive being to keep the war going for as long as possible," Mujahid said. "And for as long as they do, the Taliban will continue their fight against the foreign and (Afghan) government forces."
From Jan. 1, the coalition will maintain a force of 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 140,000 in 2011. As of Dec. 1, there were some 13,300 NATO troops in the country.
Up to 10,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan for the first three months of next year, 1,000 more than previously planned, said a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss troop deployments. By the end of 2015, however, American officials say the U.S. troop total will shrink to 5,500, and to near zero by the end of 2016.
Obama's recent decision broadened what had long been billed as an "advise and assist" mission set to begin next year, allowing American forces to launch operations against the militants as well as to provide combat and air support. Afghan officials have also said that Ghani is considering a resumption of night raids that could involve Americans.
Nevertheless, U.S. Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of NATO and U.S. forces, said foreign troops will now focus on training and supporting Afghan soldiers and police, who have led the fight against the Taliban insurgents since mid-2013.
"The Afghan security forces are capable," Campbell said. "They have to make some changes in the leadership, which they're doing, and they have to hold people accountable."
Ghani, who replaced President Hamid Karzai, is overhauling Afghanistan's military and the security apparatus. He has begun replacing provincial governors in volatile areas and his office said military leaders will also be replaced. His National Security Council is working on a manual that will establish rules of engagement and battlefield practices for Afghan security forces.
As Afghan troops have stepped up, they have been killed in record numbers. Afghan security casualties spiked 6.5 percent this year, with 4,634 killed in action. By comparison, some 3,500 foreign forces, including at least 2,210 American soldiers, have been killed since the war began in 2001.
Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss their intelligence analysis, say they believe Taliban attacks will only increase in December and January as the militants react to Ghani's embrace of a continued foreign military presence. They also blamed Pakistan's intelligence agencies — which they have long accused of quietly supporting the militants — for the surge in violence, even though relations between the two countries have thawed in recent months since Ghani's election.
"I don't think the war will slow or stop during the winter, as attacks on cities are not contingent on the weather," Afghan political analyst Wahid Muzhdah said. "I believe attacks in the cities will increase."
In recent weeks, the Taliban have hit foreign targets, including military, diplomatic and civilian installations. Four foreigners, including a British Embassy security guard and a South African charity worker and his two teenage children, have been killed in Kabul.
Five attackers died in Monday's attack on the police station, including one who blew himself up, said Samim Akhplwak, the spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor. The attack also wounded seven people.
In the restive eastern province of Nangahar, three headless bodies were found, according to the governor's spokesman, Ahmad Zia Abdulzai. He said four people had been kidnapped "a couple of days ago." One intact body was found on Sunday but it was unclear if the bodies were those of the kidnapped.
The war has spawned widespread lawlessness in much of the country, with deadly feuds often taking place under the guise of Taliban-related violence.
Monday's muted ceremony in Kabul was in stark contrast to the heady days following the 2001 invasion, when U.S. and allied forces routed the Taliban and sent bin Laden's al-Qaida scrambling across the border into Pakistan. But in the fallow years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with Washington's attention focused on the Middle East, the Taliban took root again.
Al-Qaida's central command is meanwhile battered but intact following the 2011 killing of bin Laden, its affiliates carry out near daily attacks in several countries, and an even more radical breakaway faction — the Islamic State group — controls vast swaths of Syria and Iraq.