The plan to handover authority to Afghan forces in phases, leading to the exit of all foreign forces by the end of 2014, was initiated on Sunday, despite recent violence capped by the assassination on Tuesday of President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother in the troubled southern city of Kandahar.

Afghan forces formally took over control from NATO of Bamiyan - one of the safest provinces in central Afghanistan. Despite Sunday’s handover, troops from New Zealand, under Afghan command will, for the time being, remain in the area. The low-key ceremony was unannounced due to security reasons, but several diplomats, who were flown in from Kabul, participated.

The modest exit of forces which commenced on Sunday is part of a withdrawal plan from seven provinces that was announced by President Karzai in March. There are around 1,50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, nearly 100,000 of whom are from the United States. U.S. authorities had earlier pumped in extra forces to get the upper hand on Taliban militancy. However, 33,000 troops who have been part of the U.S. “surge” in Afghanistan will withdraw by 2012. All foreign combat troops are to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The other areas that would be handed over are the provinces of Kabul and Panjshir, home to the slain Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Troops would also be withdrawn from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, not far from Uzbekistan’s border, as well as city of Herat, the town of Mehtar Lam and Lashkar Gah, the capital of violent Helmand province, well known as a Taliban stronghold.

There is considerable scepticism about the success of the handover process, mainly on account of apprehensions that Afghan forces replacing foreign troops may not have been adequately trained.

Analysts say that their resolve is likely to be tested soon, as the Taliban are expected to accelerate fighting during the rest of summer.

Observers say that troop morale could be low following last Tuesday’s high-profile killing of President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a prominent leader of the Kandahar province. A recent attack on a top Kabul hotel had killed 21 people.

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