Afghanistan announces crucial security handover

KABUL (AFP) – Afghan forces will take over control of security for Lashkar Gah, capital of the restive southern province of Helmand, from NATO this year, President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday.

The city is the only part of southern Afghanistan, the area worst hit by the conflict, to be included among the first areas to be taken under local control.

AFP file photo shows Afghan National Army (ANA) troops and US Army soldiers on patrol in the village of Jellawar in The Arghandab Valley.

Karzai began revealing the first areas where local security forces will take over from NATO, kick-starting a transition designed to allow foreign troops to leave by the end of 2014.

Karzai's announcement comes after battle-weary countries contributing to the NATO-led force agreed last year to begin putting the battlefield under his control, moving Western troops to a support role.

But with a major insurgency still raging, doubts remain over how ready the national security forces really are, with military leaders complaining of a lack of resources and some analysts citing corruption and low retention rates.

"As violence has increased, the Afghan National Security Forces have proven a poor match for the Taliban," the International Crisis Group, a respected think-tank, said in a recent report.

"Afghanistan still lacks a cohesive national security strategy and the Afghan military and police remain dangerously fragmented and highly politicised."

The provinces and cities to be placed under Afghan security control in the first phase this July include Bamiyan province in the centre, Panjshir province in the northeast and parts of the eastern provinces of Kabul and Laghman, as well as the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west.

Security in Helmand has improved substantially since the United States deployed an extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan last year, mostly in the south, but experts say it remains fragile.

US President Barack Obama has said he wants American troops to begin leaving Afghanistan in July, amid waning domestic support for the war.

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.

Alliance officials have stressed that the transition will be gradual and dependent on conditions on the ground, and only a small number of American soldiers are expected to leave Afghanistan this summer.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said this month that while the gradual "thinning out" of international forces in particular provinces would accelerate, "redeployment and reinvestment... remains a NATO responsibility".

Karzai will make his announcement at the National Military Academy in Kabul in front of an audience of several hundred army and police officers.

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