KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will announce within days plans for his security forces to take control of some parts of the country, but the handover from NATO troops is more a statement of intent than the start of real change.
Diplomatic and military sources say the areas likely to be chosen are either among the most secure in the country or have been the focus of intense coalition efforts -- that would be unsustainable nationwide -- to pump up the army and police.
Rather than providing much real relief to foreign troops, the showpiece transition aims to send a message that Karzai and NATO are both serious about Afghan control, while leaving years to grapple with a knot of recruitment, training and battlefield challenges that beset the national army and police.
“We are very excited about this process. We see it as key to the Afghans assuming much greater responsibility, not just for security but overall responsibility for their own sovereignty,” Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who heads the NATO training mission, told Reuters in neighboring Kandahar province.
“It will demonstrate to the Afghan people that their government is back in charge.”
The showpiece of the transition is expected to be Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, one of the areas where the insurgency has raged most strongly in recent years.
But the city will still have a NATO base teeming with foreign forces, which will continue to secure the rest of the province and be on call for emergencies. And the Afghan army unit expected to take over is the elite of the new military, staffed with the best new recruits and lavished with equipment.
The other areas slated for transition have far fewer security issues, with the three provinces slated for full handover probably the safest in the country.
Panjshir has been an anti-Taliban stronghold for more than a decade, Bamiyan’s Shi‘ite Muslim inhabitants have long had a bad relationship with the Sunni Taliban, and northeastern Badakhshan is remote, sparsely populated and largely peaceful.
The remaining areas -- western Herat city and the area around the capital, Kabul -- have never been insurgent strongholds. Mazar-e-Sharif city was reported to have been taken off the list at the last minute as violence grows in the north.
Even so, some military officials and analysts warn that the shift will be challenging. The Afghan forces are less well equipped, trained and disciplined than their NATO counterparts, and in many areas they are understaffed.
Even so, just a year ago transition would probably have been near impossible. Despite the near decade-long foreign military presence in Afghanistan, building up local security forces was not a major concern until 2009.
As the insurgency gained strength, the bill for fighting it grew and Western voters’ appetite for foreign wars shrank, it became clear that Afghan security forces would be critical to allowing foreign soldiers to go home.
The police and army were not ready for the task however -- weak and riddled with problems ranging from widespread illiteracy, drug abuse and corruption, to a dearth of leaders and equipment and a damagingly high rate of attrition.
Many of these problems persist today although with Washington committed to start withdrawing some of its 100,000 troops this year, the NATO-led coalition is now rushing to make up for lost time bolstering the security forces.
Caldwell’s mission aims to add another 40,000 police and soldiers by October. The budget for infrastructure, training and equipment, salaries and other costs is $11.6 billion for this year, and estimated at over $5 billion for some years to come.
But they will need all the time they have before the full security handover planned for the end of 2014.
Attracting educated Afghans who want to serve as officers or in skilled jobs like logistics remains hard, and striking an ethnic balance in a country where this is critical for a trusted and respected army is also tough.
Despite a raft of initiatives to prevent desertion, NATO estimates more than 71,000 soldiers must be recruited and trained to hit an October expansion target of 29,000. The ratio is lower for police, but still high enough for concern.
Afghan officials report an even more basic problem in areas where the insurgents are strong -- young men are scared to take jobs that make them an explicit Taliban target.
“The biggest challenge still is persuading young men to come and register. The fear is still there that they might be assassinated by the Taliban, or their families could be at risk,” General Nasrullah Zarefi, commander of the ANP regional training center in Kandahar, told Reuters.
Editing by Paul Tait and Jonathan Thatcher