Karzai reveals first phase of Afghan security handover

Afghan government security forces are to take the lead in securing several named areas of the country beginning in July, the first phase in a Nato-led transition that should see all foreign combat troops gone by 2014.

KABUL // The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, announced yesterday that government security forces would take the lead in securing several key areas of Afghanistan beginning in July, the first phase in a Nato-led transition that seeks to withdraw all foreign combat troops by 2014.

Afghan national police and army would be responsible for security in Bamiyan, Panjsher and Kabul provinces, with the exception of the unsettled Kabul district of Sarobi, as well as the Afghan cities of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Lashkar Gah and Mehterlam, said Mr Karzai, speaking at Kabul's National Military Academy yesterday.

"We don't want foreigners to take responsibility for security anymore," Mr Karzai said.

There are about 140,000 foreign troops fighting the Taliban under the Nato banner in Afghanistan. A key pillar of Nato's mission rests on training Afghan police and army soldiers to take charge of fending off an already robust anti-government insurgency.

The Afghan army has about 149,000 soldiers and is projected to have 171,600 by October, Nato says. The police force is expected to reach 134,000 by October, up from just more than 115,000 by the end of last year.

Nato forces, which spent US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) on police training from 2003 to 2009, say they now hope to train about 300,000 army and police officers by the end of this year.

The announcement comes amid one of Afghanistan's most violent periods in a decade, with civilian and troop casualties at their highest levels since a US-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001.

While Bamiyan and Panjsher, central Afghan provinces known for their relative quiet, have seen almost no insurgent activity since 2001, several other areas announced by Mr Karzai for transition continue to suffer from heavy insurgent-related violence, analysts here say.

One US military adviser, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "Bamiyan and Panjsher, we know they're low-hanging fruit. But it's a political decision which provinces will go forward with the transition."

Lashkar Gah, one of the urban areas lined up for the first stage of handovers, is the capital of the volatile southern province of Helmand, where foreign and Afghan troops have faced some of the fiercest insurgent battles of the war.

Of the 19,000 US Marines based in south-western Afghanistan, the majority are in Helmand, the US military says.

US Marine Captain Patrick Lavoie, stationed in Marjah, said last month: "When we took Marjah [a district in Helmand], it was a fight."

Marjah, a poor hamlet of farming villages, just 30 kilometres south-east of Lashkar Gah, was the target of a major US-led offensive last year, but remained a Taliban stronghold as recently as last summer. Nato strategy to secure Marjah relies on arming local anti-Taliban militias.

Captain Lavoie said: "It's quiet now, but I know the Taliban are out there. All this security, it could be gone in the spring."

In the north, Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province, which has a long history of resistance to the Taliban, is largely considered safe. But its neighbour to the east, the northern province of Kunduz, is engulfed by a newly-strengthened insurgency there.

As Nato forces intensify their fight in Taliban strongholds in the south, insurgents are thought to have fanned out and, playing on feelings of disenfranchisement among local Pashtuns, developed new cells and better operational capability in the north.

Taliban attacks in Kunduz this month, including one against an Afghan National Army recruitment centre, killed at least 40 people. Balkh is marred by ethnic tensions left over from the Taliban-led massacres and subsequent reprisal violence that rocked the province from 1998 to 2001.

One Kabul-based western analyst said: "Many individuals who committed ethnically-motivated violence in late 2001 are among those being tasked with providing security now. This does not portend well for peace in Balkh or its neighbouring provinces."

Other analysts, including those working directly with Afghan security forces through Nato's training mission, say the lack of unified standards for training Afghan forces makes for uneven levels of progress and capability of army and police across the country.

"Security forces are being trained by different standards across the country and even being armed with different weapons," one US military analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, said. "You have four countries, four flags, all with different standards. Nothing is unified, and people get killed."

A total of 1,292 Afghan police and 821 Afghan soldiers were killed in 2010, according to the government. Some US military advisers say that right now, the transition is merely symbolic.

"On paper, Afghan security forces might be in the lead," the same US military analyst said. "But we'll be sitting right behind them with a whole lot of machine guns."