KABUL The handover from NATO-led forces to Afghans should start in the first half of 2011 but poor security in some areas could see it run past a 2014 target, a NATO official said on Wednesday before an important summit.
With attention focusing on the security transition from foreign forces to Afghans over the next four years, newly appointed French Defense Minister Alain Juppe called Afghanistan "a trap for all the parties involved.
Afghanistan will be among the priorities for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders when an annual summit begins on Friday, with the pace and scope of troop withdrawals at the top of their agenda.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made 2014 the target for Afghan forces to assume full security responsibility from foreign forces, with Washington planning to begin a gradual drawdown of its forces from July 2011.
Others doubt enough Afghan forces will be ready in time to meet Karzai's target, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called it realistic.
The 2014 target is part of a wider plan by Karzai that includes talks with Taliban-led insurgents, reintegration and reconciliation and the ramping up of the Afghan security forces to enable the transition.
"We expect that the transition process will start in the first half of 2011," said Mark Sedwill, the top civilian NATO representative in Afghanistan.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will chair this week's summit, said on Monday there was no alternative to military operations to force the Taliban toward a political solution.
Britain's Chief of the Defense Staff General David Richards said in London that both sides in the conflict were "at the early stages of a mutual understanding that we can't go on doing this forever" and "there's an interest in seeking a solution."
However, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the secretive leader of the Afghan Taliban, this week labeled talk of negotiations "mere propaganda.
Sedwill did not say where the transition would begin but U.S. and NATO leaders have recently sought to play down expectations, saying it would likely start at the district rather than the provincial level.
Sedwill said the transition could run "to 2015 and beyond" in some areas that could still face security problems.
"We expect to have strategic overwatch in large parts of the country by that time (2014)," he told reporters in Kabul, with civil administration to follow the security transition.
NATO troops would then assume support and training duties as Afghans took on the burden of combat roles. "The end of 2014 does not mean that the mission is over, but the mission changes. It's the inflection point, if you like," Sedwill said.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who will review his Afghanistan war strategy in December, has set July 2011 as the start of his drawdown and European leaders are following a similar timetable.
Juppe, for example, said France wanted to discuss in Lisbon how to reduce its 3,500-strong force in Afghanistan. Many European leaders are under pressure at home to justify their continued combat support for an increasingly unpopular war.
Military and civilian casualties are at record levels and an increase in attacks over the past week will likely send an even more sobering message to NATO leaders in Lisbon.
U.S. and NATO commanders have been talking up recent successes but there are still points of friction with their Afghan allies, most recently over the use of "night raids" on Afghan homes while hunting Taliban and other insurgents.
Karzai told The Washington Post he wanted the U.S. military to reduce its visibility and the intensity of its operations and that night raids "have to go away.
But Sedwill defended the tactic, saying the raids were as "surgical" as they could be and were an important weapon.
"We are under no illusion that you can run a counterinsurgency program without these operations," he said.