The Road to Withdrawal: Afghanistan Starts Transition

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More than nine years after the United States overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan's government said for the first time today it can secure parts of the country with its own security forces.

Calling the transition "irreversible," Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Afghan forces would take over four major cities and almost all of three provinces beginning by July in a process that could last 18 months.

The declaration is a major milestone on the road toward withdrawing international troops and handing over security for all of Afghanistan by 2014. But in many ways the announcement is symbolic. The country has never been more violent, Afghan forces continue to struggle to become autonomous and most of the areas earmarked for transition have been safe for years.

Panjshir province, for example, has long been the most peaceful part of the country, and was never taken over by the Taliban even when they ran the government. In Bamiyan province, a small contingent of New Zealand troops face little fighting, and the area is safe enough for some foreigners to go skiing near the country's only national park. And in each of the locations announced today, Afghan forces have mostly been in charge already; as one U.S. official put it, "this isn't a flip of the switch. It's a process."

As Afghan forces take over in these areas, NATO forces could redeploy to other areas, go home, or transition to training roles.

"The people of Afghanistan no longer want the defense of their country in the hands of others," Karzai said to a graduating class of Afghanistan's equivalent of West Point. "Responsibility for security should be handed over to Afghans."

Perhaps the most challenging location to be transitioned is Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province -- still the most dangerous province in the country. The city of 300,000 is a sort of island within Helmand that has been secured mostly by Afghan forces since last summer, relatively safe compared to rural areas, where tens of thousands American and British troops fight constantly.

But the Taliban have made it clear they think Lashkar Gah is far from ready for transition. Last week, after the city appeared in leaked reports ahead of Karzai's announcement, they forced cell phone companies to shut down networks after dusk, according to residents -- something that happens in many Taliban-influenced areas. The government remains weak and prone to corruption.

Two residents of Lashkar Gah reached by phone today supported the announcement, but both worried about whether Afghan forces would be up to the task.

"This decision could help convince those people who are swayed by the Taliban's claim the country is occupied and the U.S. will never leave," said Mohammad Ibrahim Chanjerwal. "But our forces are not well trained. I fear the warlords will once again return to power."

Some 600 British troops are stationed in the city, but thousands of British and American troops are within a 30-minute helicopter flight.

The other areas to be transitioned are Kabul province, where Afghan troops have controlled the capital city since 2009 (although French troops will remain in charge of the least-safe district); Herat city, the largest city in western Afghanistan; Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan; and Mehterlam, the capital of Lahgman province in eastern Afghanistan. Karzai said he hoped transition would begin in the provincial capitals and expand outward.

In his speech on the first day of the Afghan year, Karzai praised 300 cadets graduating from the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, urging them to be proud of their country. His speech included nationalist tones: he criticized raids conducted by foreign special forces at night, and said the international community must funnel aid directly to the central government -- two criticisms that have largely been rejected in the past.

"The relationship with NATO and the United States is very important for the transition process," Karzai said. "Private security companies, operation of [provincial reconstruction teams], presence of [U.S.-supported] militias, arresting of Afghans by international forces, searching of houses on their own -- all of this should be stopped. These are the prerequisites for a broader and stronger government."