BRUSSELS A programme for handing over security responsibility in Afghanistan to Afghan forces will be announced in March, with a view to launching the actual process later in the first half of this year, NATO said on Monday.
The district-by-district, province-by-province transition envisages Afghan forces having full security responsibility countrywide by 2014, and should allow for a gradual reduction of the 150,000 foreign troops in the country.
NATO said in 2009 that it aimed to transfer such responsibility in 10-to-15 districts and areas in 2010, but the launch has been delayed by widening insurgent violence and difficulties building up the Afghan security forces.
NATO has since been vague about a start date, despite growing weariness in Western countries with the 10-year war.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last month he hoped the process would be launched this month -- or in March at the latest.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a security conference on Sunday he planned to announce the first phase of transition on March 21, the Afghan New Year.
Rasmussen told a Brussels news conference on Monday the March date would be for announcing which provinces and districts would be first to make the transition -- not the actual start of the process.
"After that, a more practical implementation process will start. It's premature to say anything about when the physical transition will take place, but it will be in the first half of 2011, as I see it today," he said.
"After the political decision has been taken, there is a practical implementation, but I would expect it to be relatively short."
Rasmussen said he was optimistic due to what he called rapid growth in the size and quality of the Afghan security forces.
He said Afghan soldiers were now taking part in most security operations and made up about half those involved.
He brushed aside frequently expressed concerns about the capabilities and conduct of the Afghan police, saying: "As for the police, we have also seen an improvement of quality and we will see further improvements in the coming years."
Rasmussen spoke after a survey released last week fueled doubts about the transition process by showing the police only slightly more popular than the Taliban in the insurgent heartlands of the south.
The U.N.-commissioned survey portrayed a police force widely viewed by Afghans as corrupt and showing favoritism based on personal connections.
Rasmussen said that overall, opinion polls showed that most Afghans -- around 80 percent -- trust their security forces.
"For all these reasons I am quite optimistic about the timetable and a gradual transfer of responsibility to Afghan security forces," he said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)