Afghan forces will soon replace NATO-led troops in charge of security at six sites across Afghanistan _ the first step in a transition that Afghan President Hamid Karzai hopes will leave his troops in control across the nation by the end of 2014, The Associated Press has learned.
The provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in volatile southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north are slated for the first phase of transition from NATO-led forces to Afghan soldiers and police, a Western official told AP on Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Karzai plans to formally announce the sites March 21.
All of Bamiyan and Panshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, are on the transition list, which many Western diplomats and military officials have. Also slated for transition is Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district, the official said. Afghan security forces earlier took charge of security in the capital, Kabul.
Except for Lashkar Gah, the list excludes nearly all of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the fiercest fighting is under way.
NATO forces that are currently in the lead or partnered with Afghan forces in the six areas are to either take on support roles, including training and mentoring, be redeployed to other areas of the country, or sent home.
Arriving at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday, Afghanistan's Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said he expects the alliance to endorse the list of provinces and districts where alliance forces will hand over responsibility.
"It is good news for all of us," Wardak said.
NATO's 28 defense ministers will be joined on Friday by their counterparts from 20 other nations participating in the international force to jointly consider future moves in the war.
There are currently about 145,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan government plans to have 305,000 trained soldiers and policemen by October, and Wardak has repeatedly insisted that the country's security forces must be expanded to nearly 400,000 by 2014.
They face about 25,000 Taliban insurgents.
President Barack Obama wants the U.S. to start withdrawing troops in July, if conditions allow. Karzai's goal is to have his forces responsible for protecting and defending their homeland by the end of 2014.
The formal announcement on March 21 is expected to draw praise from the international community, which is eager for international forces to hand over security responsibility. Others worry that it's too early to start the transition to Afghan-led security.
Norine MacDonald, author of "Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown," argues that a rushed transition could jeopardize an orderly transition.
"Given the fragility of the current situation ... maintaining current force levels until July 2012 is essential in order to preserve the hard-won gains," MacDonald wrote.
And some residents of Lashkar Gah aren't sure their city _ or the Afghan forces _ are ready to take over.
"I think the situation will get worse," said Manan Shah, a 53-year-old elder. "How can we feel secure when everyday we come to know of a man who died because of the Taliban, or because he was shot and killed by NATO forces or because he was killed by Afghan police? How can we feel safe?"
The bulk of the work will fall on the Afghan National Police, especially in heavily populated cities like Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Lashkar Gah, according to Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Mohammadi.
He said gains have been made, but more work needs to be done to weed out corruption in the ranks of police, improve literacy and the overall professionalism of the force.
Another challenge is desertions among Afghan security forces.
U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, recently said the Afghan army loses about 32 percent of its personnel each year and that nearly 23 percent of police desert.
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.