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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 New Year began violently in Afghanistan, with three bombings killing 13 people in one day in Kandahar. In addition, the French Defense minister told soldiers he backed US efforts to open peace talks with the Taliban, and President Obama was in talks about defense priorites as the US military readied for challenges from China and Iran while downplaying any future counterinsurgency efforts like the ones in Afghanistan or Iraq. Meanwhile, the foreign troop withdrawal process continued, as more responsibility was transferred to Afghan security forces. The goal is a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014. -- Lloyd Young (41 photos total)
Afghan policemen march during the transfer of authority from NATO troops to Afghan security forces in Chaghcharan, Ghor province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 4. The security responsibilities of Chaghcharan, the provincial capital of Ghor province is handed over from the NATO forces to Afghan security forces. The process of taking over security from over 130,000-strong NATO-led ISAF forces by Afghan troops would be completed by the end of 2014 when Afghanistan will take over the full leadership of its own security duties from US and NATO forces. (Hoshang Hashimi/Associated Press)

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Targeted violence against females, dismal healthcare and desperate poverty make Afghanistan the world's most dangerous country in which to be born a woman, with Congo a close second due to horrific levels of rape. Pakistan, India and Somalia ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the global survey of perceptions of threats ranging from domestic abuse and economic discrimination to female foeticide (the destruction of a fetus in the uterus), genital mutilation and acid attack. A survey compiled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to mark the launch of TrustLaw Woman*, puts Afghanistan at the top of the list of the most dangerous places in the world for women. TrustLaw asked 213 gender experts from five contents to rank countries by overall perceptions of danger as well as by six categories of risk. The risks consisted of health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking. The collection of images that follow were provided by Reuters to illustrate the dangers women face in those 5 countries. -- Paula Nelson (*TrustLaw Woman is a website aimed at providing free legal advice for women’s' groups around the world.) (37 photos total)
Women in Afghanistan have a near total lack of economic rights, rendering it a severe threat to its female inhabitants. An Afghan soldier uses a wooden stick to maintain order among women waiting for humanitarian aid at a World Food Programme WFP distribution point in the city of Kabul, December 14, 2001. The U.N. (WFP) started its biggest ever food distribution in the Afghan capital, handing out sacks of wheat to more than three-quarters of the war-ravaged city's population. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

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