Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday named the initial cities and provinces expected to see local forces take over security from U.S.-led coalition troops, even as the country’s military and police continue to face a lack of trainers and equipment.
Karzai touted the selections of Bamian and Panjshir provinces, most of Kabul province and four provincial capitals, areas already either relatively free of insurgent activity or experiencing a heavy presence of U.S. and NATO troops that can intervene anytime Afghan security forces become overwhelmed.
The Afghan president said the areas named Tuesday would see a transfer of security responsibilities to local forces in July, with more to come later.
“The Afghan nation doesn’t want the defense of this country to be in the hands of others anymore,” Karzai said, speaking at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in Kabul, the capital. “This is our responsibility to raise our flag with honor and pride.”
The gradual shift in security responsibility from coalition forces to Afghan soldiers and police is a vital component in Washington’s blueprint for extricating itself from nearly 10 years of fighting against a resilient Taliban insurgency.
The United States, its European allies and Karzai’s government have all agreed that by 2014 Afghan security forces should take the lead in ensuring the country’s security. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would no longer steward combat operations and would instead focus on support and training.
Little fighting has occurred in Panjshir and Bamian provinces. The cities of Herat in the west, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east also have been mostly quiet. Much of Kabul province, already under Afghan control, was included on Karzai’s list, though the tense district of Surobi was excluded.
The other provincial capital Karzai named, Lashkar Gah, is in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, the site of fierce fighting between coalition troops and insurgents. NATO has a large contingent of troops in Lashkar Gah that can bolster Afghan security forces when the need arises.
The training of Afghan security forces has been stepped up in recent months, with the Afghan army now about 150,000-strong and the police numbering 122,000 officers.
U.S. officials hope to have an additional 40,000 Afghan police and soldiers trained and deployed by October. Pentagon officials have said they would like to see the size of Afghan security forces reach 352,000 to 378,000.
It remains unclear just how prepared Afghan security forces are to take on responsibility for securing parts of their country. There have been numerous incidents of Afghan security personnel turning their guns on U.S. and NATO troops, killing or wounding them.
A shortage of NATO trainers and a lack of proper equipment also have impeded the readiness of Afghan security forces. Illiteracy is another major problem; an estimated 80% of Afghan police and army recruits cannot read, according to the U.S. military.
“If a soldier can’t read a serial number off a weapon, a policeman can’t read a license plate on a car, needless to say that is mission-limiting,” U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top Western commander in Afghanistan, said this month at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Karzai’s announcement was a logical step.
“This represents the next stage of Afghanistan’s journey, not the destination,” Rasmussen said in a statement. “Every step of the way will be determined by conditions on the ground.... We need to seize this opportunity to build both the quantity and quality of Afghan forces, who are increasingly bearing the responsibility for their nation’s security.”
Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi in Kabul contributed to this report.