“Are we ready to take over? In some places, we are,” said one Afghan commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But in others, we aren’t now, and we won’t be in a year.”
For the past six months, Afghan and American officials have held formal ceremonies to celebrate the transition of cities, districts and provinces to Afghan control — early steps toward a post-NATO Afghanistan.
Those transitions are part of a larger effort to build confidence among both Afghan soldiers and civilians in the ability of the country’s institutions to maintain security. Billboards have been posted across the country with photos of American soldiers handing their guns over to their Afghan counterparts. Afghan units have begun crafting their own missions and going on independent patrols.
Such measures, although sometimes dismissed as hollow symbols by officials in Kabul, have prompted Afghan officers to play a more active part in traditionally NATO-led military operations, Western military officials say.
“Instead of being afraid, the majority of Afghan army leaders I worked with were proud to take on a leading role,” said Fernando Lujan, an Army Special Forces major and a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who spent a year embedded with Afghan army units.
U.S. officials in Kabul insist that Panetta’s announcement does not signal a shift in policy or an expedited withdrawal. But some Afghans say it could be enough to shake the confidence of the army and police force, which now faces the prospect of inheriting the country’s most embattled provinces within the next eighteen months.
Though more than a dozen formal transition ceremonies have been held since last summer, most have been in relatively peaceful provinces, or in small patches of cities, sometimes only a few square miles.
Those handovers are a far stretch from the challenges to come. Although the distinction between combat and assistance can be murky in practice, Afghans will no doubt be expected to play a more active role in crafting and executing military strategy in places where the United States has fought for years without decisive victory.
American officials planned to use early transition exercises as a litmus test for the overall handover of the war effort. Panetta’s announcement means there may be less time than many expected to learn from early mistakes before combat operations end.
“For those who understand the reality, Panetta’s announcement sends a vague message. Many will argue, how can we trust the U.S. when they keep changing their words?” said Afghan Maj. Kosh Sadat.
The Karzai administration appeared unfazed by Panetta’s statement, with officials claiming they are still confident the United States will remain a stabilizing force in Afghanistan.
“The international troops are focusing more on the strengthening, equipment and funding of Afghan forces, and this will make the Afghan forces self-sufficient and ready to take on this big responsibility,” said Hakim Asher, a government spokesman. He called the statement a “natural part of the process of transition.”
Still, some worry that the announcement also sends the wrong message to the Taliban, showing weakness during a critical stage of peace talks with the insurgency.
An accelerated timetable could play into peace negotiations, some analysts say, but it would be unlikely to mollify Islamic militants fighting the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan as long as U.S. troops of any kind remain in Afghanistan.
“Whether it is the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda, the narrative is the same: They want to liberate Afghanistan from foreign occupation,” said Pakistani author Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “The first major hurdle the U.S. and coalition forces face is opposition to the U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The Taliban have taken the maximalist position that foreign forces must leave lock, stock and barrel.”
Correspondents Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Richard Leiby in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.