MOSCOW NATO's plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and transfer security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 are premature, a Russian envoy said on Thursday.
Still haunted by its own decade-long war in Afghanistan, Russia is tiptoeing back into Afghan affairs before the gradual withdrawal of NATO troops which it fears could leave a power vacuum in a region that was once a traditional Russian sphere of influence.
"It is too early to talk about results and premature in Afghanistan because the situation is in a permanent state of degradation," Zamir Kabulov, presidential envoy and former Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, told reporters.
"Strange as it may sound, the beginning of the transfer of responsibility from NATO troops to the Afghan authorities has only added to tensions and we must be ready for this."
President Barack Obama has pledged to begin reducing U.S. troops from July, with the goal of passing security responsibility on to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
Washington has said the United States plans to keep a role in Afghanistan well past that date, hinting at plans to establish long-term military bases in the country.
Kabulov said Afghan forces were not ready to ensure security and blamed the U.S.-led coalition for not doing enough to train them.
"In our view, the Afghan security forces -- the police and the army -- are not ready yet for a full-fledged assumption of responsibility of the security," he told reporters.
"There will be difficulties and we are not raising this issue to gloat but because of our concerns."
Russia fears the troop reduction will allow Taliban militants to infiltrate the mainly Muslim oil- and gas-producing countries of Central Asia, with which it shares a porous border.
Kabulov said less than 20 percent of Afghan troops were battle ready and NATO and U.S. figures on the size of the Afghan forces were self-deluding.
Despite the presence of up to 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, violence reached its highest levels last year, with record casualties. This year, casualties are following a similar pattern in the 10th year of an increasingly unpopular war.
Kabulov said lack of attention to development by coalition forces had pushed Russia to seek a greater role in Afghanistan.
"Yes, we want the Americans to leave, but now that have gone in, we want them to do what they first said they would: Ready a powerful Afghan military force and build an economy," he said.
"But since very little is being done, Russia has begun to act unilaterally."
Moscow has no troops in the military campaign in Afghanistan but has increased its support for NATO and local forces, backing drug raids, allowing supplies to transit its territory and providing helicopters to the U.S. army.
Kabulov said Russia categorically opposed a long-term U.S. base military in Afghanistan.
The envoy accused the U.S. of vying to increase its influence over Afghanistan's resource-rich, post-Soviet neighbors in the Caspian and Central Asia in seeking a base.
"This question is very important to us, no less than to Iran, Pakistan, China," he said, adding he had raised concerns with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
A U.S. base in Afghanistan would be an additional source of tension, Kabulov said.
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)