Afghan forces have assumed responsibility for providing security cover to the entire country, marking a major milestone ahead of the pull-out of U.S.-led NATO forces at the end of next year.

At a ceremony in Kabul on Tuesday, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai announced that the fifth and final phase of security transition from NATO troops to Afghan forces was about to commence. “From tomorrow, our defence forces will be in the lead. From here, all security responsibilities and all security leadership will be taken over by our brave forces.”

Analysts say around 65,000 American troops alone within the ranks of NATO are still present in Afghanistan, but their intervention in direct combat has already receded substantially. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, present during the ceremony, clarified that “the main effort of our forces is shifting from combat to support”.

Mr. Rasmussen said that NATO forces would assist Afghan troops “if needed”, but would “no longer plan, execute or lead those operations”.

Observers say Afghan forces, which will now take over the remaining 95 districts from the western military alliance, are already suffering heavy casualties in their combat with the Taliban, because foreign forces have drastically scaled down back-up support.

For instance, the U.S.-led forces are showing considerable reluctance in providing air support to Afghan troops in the heat of battle. Air evacuation of casualties is becoming difficult because foreign commanders have decided that barring exceptional circumstances, Afghan troops must learn to fend for themselves.

Afghan officials say 276 Afghan soldiers have been killed over the last three months — the flow of casualties keeping pace with last year’s record of 1,170 killed.

A reminder that Afghanistan contained a vast reservoir of violence came on Tuesday when a roadside bomb targeted senior Afghan parliamentarian Mohammad Mohaqeq. Mr. Mohaqeq survived the attack, but the explosion killed three civilians and injured dozens.

With the security situation far from certain, the Taliban is moving the diplomatic pieces by opening an office on Tuesday in the Qatari capital Doha. Afghanistan’s Tolonews.com has reported that the Taliban has announced the opening of its office during a press conference.

In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Doha office would support a peaceful solution to the crisis and bring stability to Afghanistan. It would also become a venue for the group’s meetings with Afghan officials as well as “the international community, local organisations and non-governmental organisations”.