BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Defense ministers met in Brussels Friday to advance plans to put local troops in the lead across Afghanistan despite widespread violence and persisting weaknesses in Afghan police and soldiers.
Ministers from the nearly 50 nations with troops in Afghanistan are expected in their meeting at NATO headquarters to endorse recommendations from a joint Afghan-NATO board on which districts, areas or provinces can make the transition first to Afghan security control.
The transfer is a key step in the West's plans to slowly wind down its military role in Afghanistan, where violence hit its highest level in 2010 in almost a decade of war.
Support has waned in Europe and elsewhere as the 9/11 attacks that triggered the toppling of the Taliban recede into history and the human and financial toll of the war has grown.
Foreign and Afghan officials hope local forces, even as they struggle with illiteracy, high attrition rates and occasional insurgent infiltration, will be able to take over the fight against the Taliban across Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
While Afghan forces already have a leading role in select parts of Afghanistan, like Kabul, the NATO-backed transition process will begin in earnest this year.
Once NATO and other defense ministers approve the board's recommendations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will approve a final plan and make an announcement on March 21.
Efforts to move Afghanistan closer to responsibility for its own security comes just a few months before the United States, the dominant foreign force in Afghanistan, begins to withdraw some of its close to 100,000 soldiers.
While U.S. President Barack Obama wants to fulfil a promise to bring home some of the extra 30,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan after a strategy overhaul in 2009, foreign troops will continue to bear much of the burden for years to come.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who this week toured parts of southern Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers have taken heavy losses at the hands of the Taliban, has not yet announced how many troops will be withdrawn starting in July.
But he said the United States was "well-positioned" to begin a staged withdrawal, a first step toward ending a long and expensive war that U.S. lawmakers see as a budget concern.
A growing number of other nations fighting in Afghanistan are gearing up to end their own combat roles, even though many plan to leave some soldiers behind to train Afghan forces.
Britain, which has the second-largest troop contingent in Afghanistan, could start withdrawing as early as 2011 and Prime Minister David Cameron has said he wants to see combat troops out in five years.
France is expected to begin withdrawing troops this year while the war has produced major political casualties in Germany and the Netherlands.
Still, the United States will be keen to hold together the coalition in Afghanistan, broadening international efforts to improve weak governance and to chip away at deep poverty.
"Even as transition begins, even as we look to withdraw some forces come July -- it does not signal any sort of heading for the exit," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters this week.
"Our partners should be mindful that we're in this together and we're out together, so no one should see this as license to head for the exit themselves."
(Reporting by Missy Ryan, editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)