NZ troops hand Afghan province back

20:59, Jul 17 2011
Murray McCully std
LONG HAUL: Murray McCully says NZ's troops will still be helping Afghan forces.

New Zealand forces in Afghanistan have handed control of the Bamiyan province back to Afghan security forces, the first step in a long-awaited process allowing foreign troops to depart.

Bamiyan is the first of seven areas to be passed to local forces under a plan announced by President Hamid Karzai in March.

The central, mountainous Afghan province is largely peaceful, but is also extremely poor and heavily reliant on foreign aid.

The handover is seen as a critical step in a transition of power before foreign troops end combat operations in 2014.

A formal ceremony to mark the transition was held on Sunday in the police station of the provincial capital amid relative secrecy, reportedly to prevent threatened Taliban attacks.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the ceremony, arranged at short notice, was attended by several high-ranking ministers and members of the international community.

The ceremony was largely symbolic, and involved the raising of both the New Zealand and Afghan flags, with the Afghan flag left higher, he said.

New Zealand forces have for a time deferred to an Afghan leader on security, and this was just another step, he said.

''It's not a giant leap in one day. The ceremony really marks a key milestone in what has been a gradual transition.'''

Progress would continue to be monitored, he said.

''[But] it demonstrates a high level of confidence by forces and the Afghanistan government and the International Security Assistance Force,'' McCully said.

''The people that have been there since 2003 in a lead role can take enormous credit.''

Around 140 New Zealand defence, police and civilian staff serve in the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The troops will remain in the area for the time being, but they will be under Afghan control.

There was a mandate for New Zealand to be in Afghanistan until September 2014, McCully said.

There are about 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, almost 100,000 of whom are American.