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U.S.: Afghan troops ready to defend country

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan troops are now mostly in the lead in Afghanistan and are ready to defend the country in their first fighting season against the Taliban, U.S. commanders said Thursday at a ceremony in Kabul.

"While we will formally recognize this in a couple of months, the fact is that the Afghan National Security Forces are predominantly in the lead," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry said in Kabul Thursday, as he handed off his roles as head of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley in a transfer of authority ceremony. "This is what winning looks like."

Presiding over the ceremony, top coalition commander Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford touted progress in building an Afghan army "increasingly capable and growing in confidence."

He said the Afghans are ready to take over the security lead this summer, protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, and provide security for "inclusive, free and fair elections" in 2014, when United States will have cut its force in half to about 33,000.

"Understand that as you stand up ... you will not stand alone," Gen. Terry told Afghan forces. "Make no mistake, there will be challenges, and you will be challenged."

"What you do this year, and what you do this summer is absolutely critical," Gen. Milley added. "It's a critical milestone on the road to victory. On the road to winning. On the road to creating a stable Afghanistan."

Despite the shift in lead security responsibility to Afghan troops, coalition forces are still continuing to face lethal threats in Afghanistan.

Underlining that reality was a recent roadside bombing that killed three British troops and injured another six in the southwest province of Helmand earlier this week.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are trying to figure out how an enemy roadside bomb was able to inflict so much damage to troops riding in the British Army's newest and most heavily protected patrol vehicle, called a "Mastiff."

The bombing marked the first time in more than five years and 330 attacks on Mastiff vehicles that anyone has died, Britain's Sky News reported.

The attack occurred in Helmand Province's Nahr E-Saraj district, which is still the most heavily contested district in Afghanistan, according to Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, who was recently commanding general in southwest Afghanistan.

The attack came just a few days after the Taliban declared the start of its fighting season April 27. Still, the number of coalition troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year is down almost a fourth from this same time last year, at 25 deaths compared to 89 caused by hostile forces.

Some U.S. troops are expected to stay in Afghanistan after most of the forces leave the country by the end of 2014 to continue advising Afghan troops and maintain a small counterterrorism presence.

"Make no mistake about it. We will be there for as long as it takes," Gen. Milley said.

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