London: Plans are on track for Afghan forces to take charge of security in seven areas of Afghanistan from late July with a second phase of the handover starting in December, NATO commanders said on Thursday.
Major-General Tim Evans, a senior British officer with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), on a video link from Afghanistan, said the first set of areas would start transferring from ISAF to Afghan control on July 20.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in March that seven areas would be included in the initial phase of transition, the first step in a long process due to end with the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
Karzai has said the transition would begin in the Afghan month of Saratan, which runs from June 22 to July 22 on the Western calendar, but has not given an exact date.
Lieutenant-General David Rodriguez, the second most senior US commander in Afghanistan, speaking on the same video conference with reporters, said the Afghan government was "walking through all the plans and preparations now" for the first phase of transition.
Afghan authorities had begun "face-to-face meetings down at the local level" in preparation for the handover and were very satisfied with ISAF`s plans to support the transition, he said.
"They are already looking forward to the next group (of areas for transition) that will be announced in the fall and initiate the process in December," said Rodriguez, commander of day-to-day operations for the 150,000-strong NATO-led force.
The move is part of NATO`s strategy to hand over responsibility to an expanding Afghan force gradually, allowing reductions in foreign forces currently battling Taliban insurgents.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce soon he will bring home a sizable number of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan starting in July.
The relatively peaceful provinces of Bamiyan and Panjshir, the western city of Herat, areas around the capital Kabul and part of eastern Laghman province are among the first areas to be handed over.
Also on the transition list are Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Lashkar Gah, capital of volatile southern Helmand province.
Evans said the transition did not mean that all British troops in Lashkar Gah would suddenly leave in July.
"We`ve got to make sure we still support the Afghan forces," he said. But if conditions allowed, troops from areas that had been handed over would be moved to help other areas progress toward transition, he said.
Evans also said that the level of violence during this year`s "fighting season" was likely to be "as high if not higher than last year" because ISAF forces were pursuing insurgents.
NATO had anticipated that the insurgents might concentrate on areas singled out for transition to Afghan control, he said.
Osama bin Laden`s killing in a US raid in Pakistan last month has fuelled calls in the United States for a faster drawdown of troops.
Rodriguez said the al Qaeda leader`s death had so far had no discernible effect on the ground, although he hoped bin Laden`s influence on the Taliban would now decline.