* 2011 security transfer target is "ambitious"
* Date may be aimed at easing insurgents into talks
* Afghan troops not ready to run Taliban heartland for years
By Emma Graham-Harrison and Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, Jan 26 (Reuters) - A pledge to give Afghans the main role in securing several provinces by early 2011 is not the start of a major handover, but instead aims to hurry Kabul in building up security forces and promote a political settlement of the war.
If successful, the target laid out in a draft communique for the Jan. 28 London conference will also allow Western politicians to claim concrete progress in a war that has dragged on for more than eight and is increasingly unpopular with home electorates.
"I don’t think it’s going to be a massive handover," said John Dempsey, a lawyer at the United States Institute of Peace in Kabul, who has discussed the plan with some of the diplomats who drew it up and describes it as "ambitious".
"It is to remind the Afghan government that they are going to have this obligation, so they take building up the army and the police force seriously. It is also to send the message to the Taliban that the international security forces don’t plan to be around forever," he said.
Provinces chosen for the handover are likely to be more peaceful northern areas where the insurgency has made fewest inroads, because Afghanistan’s long-neglected security forces would be hard pressed to defend anywhere else.
Foreign troops would also keep a supporting role, potentially offering anything from backup on complex raids to air support.
"The Afghan forces have not reached the level to be able to take control of all security," said Noor Ul-haq Olumi, a senior general during the communist regime who is now a lawmaker.
Certainly nobody expects Afghans to be managing the Taliban heartlands, provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, any time soon.
UK Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth admitted on Sunday that the handover would be a long process. Senior Afghans also warned that even the army, considered better trained, equipped and with higher morale than the police, could not manage alone everywhere.
"What sort of impact have foreign and Afghan troops made so far together, to make us optimistic Afghans alone will be able to do it?" asked former Prime Minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai.
The Defence Ministry highlighted Afghan forces’ role securing the capital, where they have formally taken over from foreign troops, but said a national handover would take half a decade.
"We have the responsibility for Kabul which is very important and vital and comes under more sophisticated attacks. We are doing ok here," said spokesman Zaher Azimi.
"Afghan forces will be able to take control of all security responsibilities in five years provided they get the pledged scores of aircraft and heavy weapons," he said.
TALKS AND REINTEGRATION
The handover plans come at a time when violence is at its highest level since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban. Last year was the deadliest of the war for civilians and foreign troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama is sending an additional 30,000 troops to try and turn the tide, but has also said he will begin to scale them back by the middle of next year.
So Karzai and the West are also pushing plans to lure Taliban foot soldiers away from the conflict with cash, jobs and land, and trying to persuade leaders to sit down and talk about a peace settlement. The withdrawal and negotiations plans are linked.
Insurgent leaders are unhappy about the reintegration scheme for ordinary fighters, but one of the main groups has welcomed the pullout schedule as a possible step towards talks.
"We do not see a hindrance to the negotiations provided a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces is set," said Wali Ullah, a spokesman for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran guerrilla commander who leads the major Hezb-i-Islami group.
"With Mr Karzai and (other) Afghans we have no problems."
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan also signalled he hoped talks could bring an end to the war, with increased troop levels weakening those Taliban currently resisting negotiations, and forcing them to accept a deal.
"As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting," Stanley McChrystal said in an interview published in the Financial Times on Monday.
"I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past," he said when asked whether he would be content to see Taliban leaders in a future Afghan government.
But the spring and summer battles with new troops will key, because without a stronger military advantage, the West may struggle to bring enough insurgents to the table.
"You only talk if you can’t militarily impose a solution, and there is no incentive on the part of the Taliban to negotiate, so I don’t see how this is possible," said Kamran Bokhari, at international strategic intelligence firm Stratfor.
"I do think all this has to do with the desperate need for Washington and its allies to show on the home front that they are making some sort of progress in Afghanistan."