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KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Tuesday that Afghan troops will begin the final step toward taking full responsibility for security in all of Afghanistan, amid continued fighting in much of the country and stepped up attacks in the capital, including an explosion shortly before Karzai’s speech.

Surrounded by dignitaries, including the head of NATO-led forces and the alliance’s secretary general at Afghanistan’s National Defense University, Karzai said security for all of Afghanistan will be led by Afghan forces “in a few months.”

The announcement comes a year and a half before all foreign combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan. They already have turned over much of the security responsibility to Afghan forces, who have been suffering heavy casualties as they do more of the fighting on their own.

There are still roughly 100,000 international troops in the country, including more than 60,000 Americans, and International Security Assistance Force troops still regularly patrol with their Afghan counterparts in some of the more violent parts of the country. Afghan forces also still rely heavily on ISAF for air support and logistics, as the fledgling Afghan Air Force lacks ground support jets and cargo planes.

ISAF is banking on rapid improvement of the Afghan National Security Forces, still beset by logistical problems, lack of equipment and high turnover.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen lauded the Afghan forces.

“Ten years ago, there were no Afghan national security forces,” he said. “Five years ago, Afghan forces were a fraction of what they are today. Now you have 350,000 Afghan troops and police, a formidable force.”

More than 11 1/2 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban regime following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is asking the Afghan military to do what NATO has been unable to: defeat the Taliban.

But for many, hopes for an end to the war hinge on potential peace talks with the insurgents, which Karzai said he hopes to begin soon. Karzai also encourage the Taliban to participate in next year’s elections.

“I would, by all means, support Taliban representation in the elections next year,” he said at a news conference after his announcement.

But the challenges of defeating the insurgency were underscored by an attack just before Karzai’s announcement. A bomb targeting a member of parliament killed three people in the capital, the third attack in the capital in two weeks, including a massive blast last week that killed 17 people, mostly employees of Afghanistan’s supreme court.

Afghans expressed mixed feelings about the ability of their forces to take over security for the country.

If the transition happens gradually, the Afghan forces should be able to stand on their own, but if ISAF tries to transition too quickly to Afghan control of security, some of the hardest fought areas could backslide, said Ahmad Majidyar, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent adviser to the U.S. Army.

“I don’t think this will be a full transition, in a way that the ANSF will continue to be supported, and it will continue to need the support of the coalition forces,” he said. “Without them the ANSF can’t function. It will be very dangerous if this transition is seen as a one-time event, and not as a process.”

“I am excited because I feel Afghanistan is in full control of the country now,” said Mohammed Nasim, 36, a tailor in Kabul.

But Akbar Khan, a taxi driver in the eastern city of Jalalabad, said corruption is still a problem for the military and that meddling neighbors still threaten Afghanistan’s peace.

“Nothing will improve if our neighbors, like Pakistan, don’t stop intervening in Afghanistan’s affairs,” he said.

Mohammad Younas Fakor, an independent Afghan political analyst, said the announcement gives the country hope, but that problems remain.

“Our security forces are not yet very united,” he said. “Some of them are still working for their own internal group, language or tribe, but today’s announcement gives them morale and courage to work for the national interest.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com

@Druzin_Stripes

Alex Pena contributed to this report

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