Afghanistan assumed full responsibility for security from departing foreign combat troops on Thursday, a day after Afghan army mortar shells killed at least 20 civilians attending a wedding party in volatile southern Helmand province.
The move will test the readiness of 350,000 Afghan forces who will bear responsibility for fighting increasingly organized Taliban insurgents.
The U.S.-led coalition troops formally ended their combat mission more than 13 years the Islamist Taliban government was toppled in late 2001 for sheltering the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on American cities.
However, about 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, will remain in the country under a new two-year mission named “Resolute Support” to train Afghan troops.
“I want to congratulate my people today that Afghan forces are now able to take full security responsibility in protecting their country's soil and sovereignty,” President Ashraf Ghani said in a speech to mark the handover.
Afghan army mortar rounds killed at least 20 civilians and wounded scores attending a wedding party in Helmand on Wednesday, provincial officials said.
General Mahmoud, the deputy Commander of the Afghan 215 corps in the province, said artillery was fired from three directions at a village in Sangin district where the wedding was held on Wednesday.
“What we know so far is that our soldiers fired mortar rounds from three outposts, but we do not know whether it was intentional,” Mahmoud told Reuters. “We have launched our investigation and will punish those who did this."
Gul Pasha Bakhtiar, deputy provincial police chief, said 26 civilians, including women and children, were killed and 41 wounded by mortar shells fired from the army side.
Deadly year for civilians
At least 3,188 Afghan civilians were killed in the intensifying war with Taliban insurgents in 2014, making it the deadliest year on record for non-combatants, the United Nations said in a report last week.
As of Nov. 30, the United Nations had recorded a total of 3,188 civilian deaths and 6,429 injuries.
The numbers are a sharp reminder that the Afghan war is far from over.
For the first time, ground battles between the Taliban and Afghan forces became the main cause of civilian deaths in 2014. In previous years, planted bombs killed the most civilians.
While U.S. military officials have portrayed the war as in the process of being won by Afghan security forces, the national army and police have also suffered record losses this year, with more than 4,600 killed.
Since 2001, nearly 3,500 foreign soldiers from 29 countries have been killed in Afghanistan, including about 2,200 Americans.