By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's leader announced on Tuesday seven areas would be included in the first phase of a gradual transition of security from NATO troops to Afghan forces in July, including volatile cities in the south and north.
The announcement was the first tentative step in a long process that will end with the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014, a process agreed by U.S. and NATO leaders last year.
"Transition is the right of the Afghan people and, therefore, we should stand on this right and we want this transition to happen," Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a graduation ceremony for Afghan military officers on a base at Kabul airport.
"We want to end this bloody war, we have to take this country toward peace by any means," he said.
Including areas from the four points of the compass and embracing most of Afghanistan's diverse ethnic makeup, the first phase of the transition is more symbolism than substance.
"This represents the next stage of Afghanistan's journey, not the destination. And every step of the way will be determined by conditions on the ground," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement congratulating Karzai.
But the handover will still be a crucial early test of the readiness of Afghan forces, which face a knot of recruitment, training and battlefield challenges despite a big push by U.S. and other Western nations in recent years.
"It is a good start because ultimately Afghans need to start taking responsibility but the announcement was pretty much as expected," Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir told Reuters.
"Afghan security forces should be on the front line so they will be forced to perform," he said.
The transition was agreed last year, when the war had reached its bloodiest phase since the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, and European leaders in particular were under pressure from a war-weary public.
Civilian and military casualties are at record levels, with the insurgency spreading out of Taliban bastions in the south and east into once peaceful areas in the north and west.
Military commanders have warned of a tough spring campaign ahead with a renewed offensive from Taliban-led insurgents. Despite that, Washington remains committed to its pledge to begin a phased and gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from July.
Karzai said the relatively peaceful provinces of Bamiyan and Panjshir, the western city of Herat, areas around the capital Kabul, and part of eastern Laghman province were included.
Also on the transition list were Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Lashkar Gah, capital of volatile Helmand province in the south and long a stronghold of the Taliban.
Analysts had warned putting Lashkar Gah on the list as a showpiece would risk a backlash from the Taliban, with the Islamists keen to show the fragility of Afghan control.
However, a huge NATO base teeming with foreign troops will remain nearby and be on call for emergencies, and some of Afghanistan's best-trained and best-equipped soldiers are expected to stay in the city.
"Lashkar Gah is a very small town and there is a heavy U.S. presence in the rest of the province," Mir said.
"I doubt very much Afghan security forces could take responsibility for Lashkar Gah right now if the Americans pulled out of the rest of the province."
Mazar-i-Sharif has also suffered rising levels of insurgent violence over the past two years, with attacks by a complex web of insurgent groups in surrounding provinces creating insecurity in the once-peaceful north.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Paul Tait)