KABUL (AFP) – Afghan forces will take over security from NATO this summer in the capital of violence-wracked Helmand province and several other areas, President Hamid Karzai said on Tuesday.
The move, 10 years after the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, is the first step towards the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Karzai said the Afghan people wanted to take charge of their own security, but he admitted that would not be an easy task for a country ground down by decades of war and still battling a brutal Taliban insurgency.
Karzai's announcement that Afghan forces will take on three provinces and four cities comes after battle-weary countries contributing to the NATO-led force agreed last year to begin putting the field of combat under his control.
"Afghanistan does not want others to be responsible for its security and defence," Karzai told senior army and police officers, kick-starting the transition under a timetable laid down by US President Barack Obama and allies.
"This year is a milestone in the process of government-building and peace. This is the year of taking on more responsibility," he added, in a speech delivered on the second day of the Afghan new year.
The announcement kicks off a transition designed to allow foreign troops to leave the war-ravaged country by the end of 2014.
But with a major Taliban insurgency still raging, doubts remain over the readiness of the Afghan security forces, with military leaders complaining of a lack of resources and some analysts citing corruption and low retention rates.
Most of the provinces and cities to be placed under Afghan security control this summer are well away from the fiercest fighting in the south, with the Helmand capital Lashkar Gah the only part of southern Afghanistan on the list.
Helmand province is at the heart of the insurgency that has blighted Afghanistan, although military chiefs say security there has improved since the United States deployed an extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan last year.
The bulk of the 9,500 British troops serving in Afghanistan are in Helmand, although Britain last year handed control of the worst-hit Sangin area to US forces after suffering heavy casualties there.
Two of the other cities, Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, are already relatively peaceful, as are Bamiyan province in the centre and the north-eastern province of Panjshir.
Parts of Kabul province will also come under Afghan control, but NATO troops will remain in charge of that province's Sarobi district, where the Taliban is most active.
Lashkar Gah and Mehtarlam, the capital of eastern Laghman province, are in provinces badly hit by the Taliban insurgency, but both are small towns, and analyst Haroun Mir said the first transition phase would be largely symbolic.
"If Karzai had only chosen places from the more peaceful northern region, it would have looked bad politically," Mir, the director of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy studies, told AFP.
"He has tried to make it look like a process that will take in all of Afghanistan. But Lashkar Gah is a very small town, so it's a symbolic move, and the same applies to Mehtarlam in the east."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the announcement represented "the next stage of Afghanistan?s journey, not the destination" and urged troop-contributing countries not to rush for the exit.
"No one wants our forces to be in combat a day longer than necessary. But it is vital that we maintain solidarity and continuity in order to ensure that transition is irreversible," he added.
Last year was the deadliest by far for international troops since the conflict began in 2001, with more than 700 fatalities reported.
As the start of the transition looms, Afghanistan's security forces, which comprise 118,000 police officers and a 159,500-strong military, are also coming under increasing attack.
Earlier this month, 36 people died in a suicide blast at an army recruitment centre in Kunduz province, the second attack on the centre in three months.
The Taliban dismissed the handover as "a game by the invading forces."
"Not only will we not stop attacking those places (that come under Afghan control), but we will increase our attacks," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP by phone from an unknown location.
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