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NATO sees Afghan city of Herat ready for transition

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Herat, is a prime candidate for NATO to start an eagerly awaited transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces, a regional NATO commander said on Thursday.

Italian Brig. Gen. Claudio Berto, commanding general for NATO’s Regional Command West, told Pentagon reporters that he had identified districts within Herat province in western Afghanistan that were ready for transition. Analysts have long considered the relatively calm Herat city a likely candidate.

“Of course the situation is not the same in the other provinces and the other cities. It takes more time. But I would like to underline that Herat is ready, it is ready to begin the transition,” Berto, commanding general for Regional Command West, said in a video conference from Afghanistan.

General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters last week that he had completed a draft plan to start thinning NATO forces in parts of Afghanistan next year, but did not say where those districts were. He briefed to NATO allies on the plan this month.

NATO is under enormous pressure to show progress in Afghanistan, where an unpopular, nine-year war is testing public patience in the United States and allied nations, which together have more than 140,000 troops in the country.

This year has been the deadliest for foreign troops since the war began.

President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 forces for Afghanistan last December but also announced that they would start coming home in July 2011. A transition to Afghan security control would allow a thinning of forces in target districts, and the withdrawal of some troops.

Petraeus said his draft plan looked at possibilities during a certain period out in the future -- within a six month period, then six to 12 months, 12 to 18, and beyond.

Deputy Chief of Staff for Stability Operations, Italian Col. Vito Cracas, said that “many” districts within Herat would be eligible for transition. He said his team had identified districts that would be ready in six to nine months, others from 12 to 24 months.

“Then of course there are also other areas that we don’t foresee transition being possible in two years, period,” he said.

Editing by Jackie Frank