Afghan President Hamid Karzai has named seven areas, including a key city in a Taliban stronghold in the south, in which security duties will be transferred from NATO to Afghan forces in July.
Karzai said his country's police and soldiers will take sole responsibility for security in three provinces and four cities. The provinces -- Bamiyan, Panjshir, and Kabul -- are considered relatively peaceful. The cities are located in the four corners of Afghanistan -- Mehtar Lam in the east, Lashkargah in the south, Herat in the west, and Mazar-e Sharif in the north.
Addressing army graduates at the Afghan military academy in Kabul, Karzai said a smooth transition would depend on the international community's assistance in enhancing good governance and reconstruction, and through their support of Afghan institutions.
"The conditions that I outlined are for improving and helping the process of transition," Karzai said. "The transition will take place [under any circumstances]. Handing over security to Afghans and protecting the country and its people by the youths of this country is a must. It is essential and is an irreversible process."
The move is the first step toward the NATO and U.S. goal of having the Afghan police and military take over all security duties in the country by 2014.
The initial seven areas will allow Afghan forces to hone their abilities while avoiding dangerous rural districts where the Taliban exert greater control. In Kabul Province, for example, the Afghan forces will not be responsible for security in the eastern restive district of Surobi, which is along a main route to Pakistan and abuts volatile regions of neighboring eastern provinces.
The largely peaceful provinces of Bamiyan and Panjshir are already mostly policed by Afghan troops. The biggest challenge will be in Lashkargah, the capital of the volatile southern Helmand Province, where the Taliban still control some rural districts despite large-scale NATO military operations.
Karzai lauded the process, saying: "The transition and the taking over of governmental responsibility are, without a doubt, the right of Afghan people, and we do this for the prosperity and freedom of the Afghan people."
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also welcomed the start of the transition process."As transition proceeds and Afghan leadership strengthens across the country, a process of political reconciliation to end the conflict will become increasingly viable,” Clinton said.
Clinton also said the United States is in the process of negotiating a strategic partnership declaration with Kabul that will “contribute to building up Afghanistan’s capacity and institutions.”
Lieutenant-General Abdul Hadi Khalid, a former deputy interior minister, said he was pleased to see the transition process unfold. But he said foreign troops were neither conducting active military operations nor exclusively responsible for providing security in any of the seven areas now slated to be overseen by Afghan forces.
"We have yet to see the real process of transition unfold in Afghanistan," Khalid said. "They have made this symbolic list to show that the process is on track."
But Shahnawaz Tanai, a former Afghan defense minister, said he backs the gradual transfer of responsibilities. He said such an approach would contribute to building Afghan capacities and buy them time to work out any problems they encounter.
Tanai headed the Moscow-backed Afghan military loyal to the country's socialist leaders throughout the 1980s. Drawing comparisons between the Soviet occupation and ongoing Western military presence in Afghanistan, he said sustained Western aid was necessary to nurture the anemic Afghan military.
"The Afghan military we now have is very weak compared to the one that we had [in the 1980s]. I, however, think that we need to trust and invest in this military," Tanai said. "In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the socialist regime survived for a few years [because of its military strength]; but the current political system won't be able to survive beyond a year [in the absence of a strong military]."
Western leaders are conscious of the most ominous scenarios. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has welcomed Karzai's announcement. "This represents the next stage of Afghanistan's journey, not the destination," he said in a statement issued in Brussels. "And every step of the way will be determined by conditions on the ground."
Rasmussen, however, warned allies against a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan and called for continued support to the Afghan forces "in order to ensure that transition is irreversible."
Some 47 countries contribute soldiers to the more than 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and many contributing countries have already announced plans for withdrawal. The United States is expected to begin reducing its 100,000-strong contingent in July.
Over the past year international donors agreed to expand the Afghan forces to 307,000 by October, up from the current 152,000 soldiers and 118,000 police officers. Karzai has said in the past that for his country to police itself, it needs nearly 400,000 security personnel.
Afghans, however, are unlikely to be impressed by figures alone. Haji Abdul Mateen, a tribal leader in the northern Balkah Province, said he is not happy about the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, being handed over to Afghan security forces.
"I don't think that the withdrawal of foreign forces is necessary now," Tanai said. "Our forces still do not have the required training and discipline. They also lack modern equipment and weapons."