Brussels: NATO defense ministers on Friday endorsed a list of the first cities and provinces where Afghan police and soldiers will take control of security — a key element in the West`s exit strategy from the decade-old war.
A news agency has learned that the areas include the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, as well as all of Bamiyan and Panshir provinces, and Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district. The list was provided by officials and diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Most of the places chosen are relatively stable parts of Afghanistan, but Helmand province, of which Lashkar Gah is the capital, has been the site of the bloodiest battles between NATO-led forces and insurgents over the past year.
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the defense ministers had approved the recommendations of a panel that drafted the list of cities and provinces, the first stage in a handover of security responsibilities that will eventually include the entire country. The plan now has to be approved by the Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai, who is expected to announce it on March 21.
Despite concerns over corruption and a lack of professionalism in the Afghan Army and police — the army has a desertion rate of up to 32 percent per year and only 11 percent of enlisted personnel are literate — Fogh Rasmussen said Afghan forces have made great progress and are increasingly joining the international forces on operations.
"They are now ready to gradually assume lead responsibility for the security of their nation and their people," he said.
Fogh Rasmussen refused to disclose the details of the plan, and refused to discuss the agency’s disclosure of the list, saying: "This is a sovereign Afghan decision, and this is the reason why I don`t want to engage in speculation at this stage."
A military official who was present at Friday`s meeting confirmed the list discussed was identical to that provided to the news agency and said that while the final decision rests with Karzai, the Afghan president is not expected to alter it significantly. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the closed-door meeting.
At the meeting, Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak and David Petraeus, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, briefed NATO`s 28 defense ministers and their counterparts from 20 other nations participating in the international force.
The first phase of transferring control will probably begin in April or May, soon after Karzai`s announcement. NATO and Karzai hope the transition plan will leave Afghan troops in control of the nation by the end of 2014, when international forces are scheduled to end their combat role and remain only to support and train Afghan forces.
The first allied troops are scheduled to depart in July, but US Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged allies to resist political pressures to start leaving in a rush. He said that would risk squandering battlefield gains. He said US troop reductions promised by President Barack Obama this summer are "based on conditions on the ground," not politics.
Gates noted that the US was spending USD 120 billion a year on the war and has 100,000 troops in the fight — more than double all the other countries put together.
"Frankly," Gates said, "there is too much talk about leaving and not enough about getting the job done right."