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Sahar Gul

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Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicated that American forces in Afghanistan would be accelerating their withdrawal. "Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013," Panetta said, "we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice, and assist role." This announcement came shortly after the Taliban declared its plans to open a political office in Qatar, allowing for direct peace negotiations. At the moment, the U.S. still has 90,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, with 22,000 scheduled to return home later this year. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [42 photos]

Men of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during an operation near the end of their third deployment in three years in Afghanistan. They were securing route 611, which runs Kajaki Sofla, an area that had long been a safe haven for insurgent sub-commanders and for arms and drug trafficking. (Cpl. James Clark/USMC)

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The United States and allied forces have been in Afghanistan for over ten years, an occupation that approaches the 2014 deadline for a full withdrawal of those forces. As the transition draws closer, problems with security, the economy, and cultural mores are growing even more apparent. Included in this monthly look at Afghanistan are images that highlight these issues, as well as images that point to a more hopeful future. The activist group YoungWomen4Change prepares posters demanding women's rights even as the horrific torture of 15-year-old Sahar Gul, who refused her husband's family's demands that she become a prostitute, came to light. Also included here are images of another Afghan girl, 12-year-old Tarana Akbari, who witnessed the terrible suicide bombing in Kabul that killed at least 80 Shiites during observances of the Ashura holiday. The bombing has raised fears of renewed sectarian violence. -- Lane Turner (37 photos total)
A man feeds pigeons in front of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, or Blue Mosque, in Mazar-e-Sharif on December 22, 2011. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

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In the year 2011, a total of 565 NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan were killed -- down from 711 in 2010 -- marking the largest decline in annual deaths during the decade-long conflict. The large number of NATO soldiers on the ground appears to have made a difference, a fact that worries Afghans as the U.S. and others accelerate their planned pullback. This year, 23,000 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to depart the country, heading toward a full withdrawal by 2014. For now, U.S. troops appear to be focusing on intensive training of Afghan forces and preparing for the logistical challenge of shipping home some $30 billion worth of military gear. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [42 photos]

Cpl. James Hernandez, a combat engineer with Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, and a native of Goodyear, Arizona, uses an electric saw to dismantle a HESCO barrier at Firebase Saenz, in Helmand province, on December 13, 2011. FB Saenz is the first of several patrol bases being demilitarized by the Marines of 9th ESB throughout the month of December. (USMC/Cpl. Bryan Nygaard)

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