KABUL, Afghanistan June 18, 2013 -- It's arguably the biggest milestone since the war began as Afghan forces officially took over the country's security responsibilities from NATO forces today.
"This is a historic moment for our country and from tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said at the ceremony, held at the new National Defense University built to train Afghanistan's future military officers.
As the transition ceremony was taking place in Kabul, however, a large bomb exploded, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more, according to the Ministry of Interior. The blast was in the Pul-e-Surkh area of the western part of the city, which is miles away from the site of the handover ceremony attended by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The blast was the latest in a particularly fierce Taliban summer offensive this year.
With Afghans now in charge with their own security, it marks a major step in the almost 12 year war. In political jargon, they call it "taking the lead." In practical terms, here's what it means:
American and coalition troops will no longer plan, execute, or lead any missions. All combat decisions will be made by Afghan leaders. Afghans will be conducting all missions, requesting American assistance on the ground only when required. There will still be U.S. air support,, but jets will only be scrambled if Afghans specifically ask for it.
In a very literal sense, Americans will no longer be "on the front lines." In most cases, U.S. troops will pull back to bigger bases, where they will "advise" Afghan missions over the radio in real-time, rather than physically going out on patrol. In cases where Americans do go out on joint missions, they are under orders to let the Afghans engage the Taliban directly.
After more than a decade, American troops are no longer looking to pick a fight with the Taliban. That's now the job of the Afghan army.
Dozens of bases will be handed over to the Afghans in the coming months. Other bases that cannot be sustained under Afghan control will simply be dismantled.
It doesn't mean Americans are fully out of harm's way. Insider attacks will likely still occur, and American anti-IED teams will still go on dangerous patrols to clear highways of roadside bombs. But overall, a sharp decline is expected in the numbers of Americans that are killed.
This also opens up the possibility for American troops to fully withdraw sooner than expected, especially if Afghan forces prove over the summer that they can handle the Taliban on their own.