By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban are trying to disrupt plans for the start of a security transfer in Afghanistan, from foreign troops to the national army and police, with attacks targeting key handover areas, the country's intelligence agency said Wednesday.
Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security (NDS) agency, said the insurgents wanted to sabotage the beginning of a process that should ease all foreign combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2104.
"They are focusing on areas where the transition is to happen," Mashal said.
"The terrorists want to destabilize Afghanistan and hurt the peace process even though the foreign troops are planning to withdraw," he told a news conference in the capital, Kabul.
The handover will be a crucial test of the readiness of Afghan troops amid heightened violence across Afghanistan, with foreign troop casualties in May the highest for that month since the war began nearly a decade ago
U.S. and NATO troops are ramping up efforts to train the Afghan army and police so they can withdraw gradually from an increasingly unpopular war.
But insurgents mounted a spring offensive to demonstrate their reach. This week, suicide bombers attacked a foreign base in normally peaceful Herat city in the west, killing four Afghans and wounding dozens.
Herat is one of seven areas included in the first phase of transition, along with stable provinces like Bamiyan and Panjshir, and the more volatile southern city of Lashkar Gah.
Although the attack on an Italian-run provincial reconstruction team did not inflict significant foreign casualties, it did raise concern about whether Afghan security forces are ready to replace NATO-led foreign forces.
Mashal also said the Afghan government was concerned about the rising number of child suicide bombers being recruited by insurgents in hundreds of religious schools in border areas of neighboring Pakistan.
"There are hundreds of boys waiting on the other side of the border to carry out suicide attacks and we have detained 19 boys in the last two months," Mashal said.
Last year, 711 foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan, most of them Americans, making it by far the deadliest year for the NATO force since the start of the war in 2001. About 220 foreign soldiers have been killed this year.
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Robert Birsel)