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KABUL (Reuters) - Almost a decade of neglect has raised serious concerns about whether Afghan security forces will be ready to take over from foreign forces by the end of 2014, a new report said on Tuesday, with serious concerns remaining about rights abuses.
The report, released by British charity Oxfam and three other rights groups, said serious efforts to strengthen the professionalism and accountability of Afghan forces only really began in 2009.
Under a plan agreed at a NATO summit in Lisbon late last year, NATO-led forces will begin a gradual handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces from July. Seven areas have been identified to begin stage one of that process.
Under the plan, all foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. There are now about 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and 285,000 Afghan troops and police, with plans to increase Afghan forces to a total 305,000 by October 2011, according to U.S. Defense Department figures.
However, that tight timeframe, set against the backdrop of a growing Taliban-led insurgency, has raised questions among some analysts and non-government organizations about whether Afghan forces will be ready in time.
"It's not too late, but an adequate response will not be possible without genuine political will at the highest levels of civilian and military leadership, both Afghan and international," the report said.
U.S. and NATO commanders say they are on track to reach the targets set for Afghan security forces, although they acknowledge that high drop-out rates remain a major problem.
The head of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan said in February that the "attrition" rate in the Afghan army had hit 32 percent in 2010. Such drop-out rates for the army and police meant the NATO training mission had to take in 111,000 recruits last year to expand the force by 79,000.
Civilian casualties have long been a source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and its Western backers, even though the vast majority are killed during indiscriminate attacks by insurgents.
A U.N. report this year showed that 2010 was by far the most lethal for Afghan civilians since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with a total of 2,777 civilians killed, up 15 percent on the previous year.
Insurgents were responsible for 75 percent of those deaths. The number attributed to foreign forces, usually during air strikes or night raids as they hunt insurgents, was about 10 percent, a fall of 26 percent after engagement rules were tightened significantly over the past 18 months.
The Oxfam report noted that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were also responsible for 10 percent of the civilians killed in the conflict in 2010, but such figures "do not convey the full extent of harm caused to the civilian population by the ANSF."
Alleged rights violations included night raids carried out without adequate precautions to protect civilians, the recruitment and sexual abuse of children, mistreatment during detention, and abuse of civilians by local police many see as little more than "criminal gangs."
It noted "a striking lack of attention" to the development of qualified security personnel and accountability mechanisms.
This included process for civilians to lodge and track complaints, as well as the payment of compensation. It said civilian casualties caused by the ANSF "are not even counted by the government."
"Combating abusive conduct on the part of the ANSF and the climate of impunity in which abuse takes place ... is a moral, political and legal imperative for both the international community and the Afghan government," it said.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani