NATO troops on Sunday handed control of the Panjshir valley, a fiercely anti-Taliban province, to Afghan forces in the last of a series of security transitions.
Panjshir, around 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of the capital Kabul, is one of Afghanistan’s most peaceful regions and the seventh area to be put under local forces’ control over the past week.
Ceremonies attended by ministers and representatives of foreign forces have been held in six of the seven areas, but there will be no official event in Kabul province, most of which will now be under Afghan control, officials said.
Although the transition timetable has been roundly criticised as politically motivated amid scepticism over the ability of Afghan forces to ward off the Taliban rebels, Panjshir is cited as ripe for the handover.
Panjshiris, mainly ethnic Tajiks, pride themselves on having kept out the Taliban and repelled the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion, and the beautiful valley is now a favoured picnicking spot for visitors from Kabul.
“Panjshir is special,” said Ashraf Ghani, head of the transition authority, at a ceremony that began with the playing of the Afghan national anthem in the presence of officials from Kabul and the US.
“The people of Panjshir show that security belongs to the people,” he said.
Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak hailed Panjshir as “an example for other provinces.”
“Defending one’s own land is the role and responsibility of every Afghan,” he said. “The enemy cannot harm anyone in this province. We all have to learn from the people of Panjshir.”
Panjshir was the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the country’s much loved anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“Massoud is not present with us today, but his soul is everywhere with us in this ceremony,” Wardak said, as MPs watched from a raised platform draped with pictures of Massoud as well as President Hamid Karzai.
Dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush and a fast-flowing river in steep valleys, the province still has rusting hulks of Soviet tanks lining its roads — symbols of the Russians’ failure to win the area despite 10 attempts.
US and Afghan officials hope its history and natural beauty will in future bring tourists to Panjshir and boost the nation’s economy as foreign forces pull out and as aid money falls in the years ahead.
Senior US embassy official Richard Olson said American support would not disappear overnight.
“The support of the US will continue towards Panjshir. Transition is just the next step in the strong relations between the US and Afghanistan,” Olson said.
Massoud’s tomb in the province is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction complete with mosque, library and conference centre.
Officials hope Massoud’s legacy to act as a focal point for visitors, along with adventure activities such as mountain trekking and kayaking.
But such plans are ambitious, with much of Afghanistan in the grip of an increasingly violent insurgency led by the Taliban extremists who were ousted from government in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks on the US.
The first stage of transition is part of a process focused on the withdrawal of 150,000 NATO-led troops by the end of 2014.