KABUL, Afghanistan – With foreign troops preparing to withdraw, President Hamid Karzai told Afghan soldiers and police Tuesday that they face a difficult year ahead as they take on more security responsibilities but urged them to push ahead so that Afghanistan can eventually defend itself.
"NATO and the international community are helping our country. But this will not go on forever and we don't want it forever," Karzai told an assembly of officers from the Afghan security forces in the yard of the presidential palace. He appeared to be softening his rhetoric regarding his Western allies, whom he has previously accused of verging toward occupation.
Karzai said that while Afghans should be thankful for the help from the international community, they should also feel shame that it is needed.
"We are not proud of that. The good news will come when we, Afghans, are protecting our own homeland," Karzai said.
The first phase of this transition has occurred over the past two weeks, with seven areas officially handed over to Afghan control. The goal is to continue gradually handing over more areas until the Afghan government takes control of nationwide security in 2014, when the U.S. is hoping to wrap up combat operations.
But transition plans have been dogged by worries that Afghan forces aren't skilled or organized enough to truly combat the Taliban insurgency. So in the first handovers, NATO troops are not leaving. They are just agreeing the Afghan forces will be in the lead.
In a reminder of the continuing high level of violence, Afghan and NATO forces announced that 35 people were killed Monday, including 22 insurgents and two police officers in two separate clashes in the southwestern Helmand province.
The office of Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said eight of the slain insurgents were killed in a clash near the town of Nad Ali -- located near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, which was one of the first seven areas handed over to Afghan forces.
The governor's office also said two young boys were killed as they stepped on a roadside bomb in Helmand.
NATO announced separately that nine insurgents were killed Monday in three separate incidents elsewhere in Afghanistan, including five during a raid to capture a local Taliban leader in eastern Laghman province.
Residents of some of the first areas to transition have expressed fear that insurgents will increasingly target their cities or provinces to show that the Afghan government is weak. Karzai called on the security forces to prove that's not the case.
"There is no doubt that it is the wish of all Afghan men, women and children for Afghanistan to be protected by Afghan sons," Karzai said. "It will happen only with hard work and sacrifice. Especially from our Afghan forces."