KABUL (Reuters) - This summer foreign troops will hand security control in parts of Afghanistan to the national police and army, launching a nearly four year-long process that Western nations and Afghan President Hamid Karzai hope will end with the departure of all international combat troops by the end of 2014.
Even though the process is seen as critical by both the Afghan government and its international counterparts, many details remain vague and officials say there is still frantic last-minute planning going on.
Below are some questions and answers about the process.
The process will see the gradual handover of control of Afghanistan’s security and administration, from foreign troops, diplomats and consultants, to their Afghan counterparts.
Attention has focused on the security side, as soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) step aside to let the Afghan police and army take the lead in the fight against the Taliban.
But equally important is the civilian transition, which aims to ensure a full and integrated complement of Afghan civil servants are in place in each province to administer everything from education to justice and healthcare.
At present services are provided by a mix of consultants, contractors, non-government organisations, international development programs, non-profit groups, the military and some Afghan officials, often with poor pay and support.
Karzai has said only that transition will begin in the Afghan month of Saratan, which runs from June 22 to July 22 on the Western calendar.
Officials say the handover has already begun in many chosen areas, or will represent a formalization of a situation where Afghan police and army already have de facto control of an area.
The actual date may vary from area to area, and current plans allow for only relatively low-key ceremonies. In some areas the formal transition may be announced after it has happened, to limit the potential for insurgent attacks.
Karzai has chosen seven areas to start the transition.
Bamiyan and Panjshir, which have long been peaceful anti-Taliban strongholds, are the only provinces which will be handed over in their entirety.
Afghan forces will also take over the western city of Herat, the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and Lashkar Gah, the capital of volatile southern Helmand province.
All three are major urban centers with symbolic importance and degrees of insurgent violence, but also cities where most policing and security work is already done by Afghans.
Completing the list are areas around the capital Kabul and part of eastern Laghman province.
The Taliban are trying to disrupt plans for the security transfer, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has said, and recent months have seen insurgent-linked violence in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, but Lashkar Gah is the biggest concern.
There is still fierce fighting in much of Helmand province, with swathes of land under insurgent control despite stepped-up efforts by NATO forces after last year’s surge of U.S. troops.
There are fears unstable districts like Sangin or Garmsir could be used as staging posts for headline-grabbing attacks in Lashkar Gah like the recent assassinations of police chiefs in Kandahar and Takhar provinces.
Transition is critical to hopes of a stable Afghanistan and a smooth withdrawal of NATO money and troops, but it is the process rather than its July launch that matters most.
With voters in many Western nations preoccupied by the rising toll and financial cost of fighting in Afghanistan, politicians are keen to ensure an exit that avoids parallels with the Soviet Union’s ignominious 1989 withdrawal.
The security situation in the first transfer areas matters in terms of morale and publicity, but it is the rest of the process -- holding on to those areas while taking control of others -- that really matters.
A smooth handover in seven areas now does not mean the Afghan security forces will be able to hold off the insurgents across the country by the end of 2014.
The NATO-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan is keen to leave, in part because of the huge bills from nearly a decade of war and development projects, but will face considerable upfront costs for the decision.
Building a force capable of taking on the battle-hardened insurgents does not come cheap. The Afghan army and police are expected to absorb more than $11 billion this year alone, to meet NATO’s target of a 305,000-strong police and army by October.
It is expected to be years before Kabul can pay the bills for security forces that employ 1 percent of the population. Hopes for economic sustainability are pinned on the vast mineral deposits it is only now starting to open up to mining.
Army and police salaries, training, equipment and infrastructure are expected to absorb more than $5 billion a year through to at least 2016. Some spending on civilian aid is expected to continue on top of that.
Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson