NATO approves plan to hand over Afghanistan security to Kabul government

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010

TALLINN, ESTONIA -- NATO members adopted a framework Friday for turning over security in Afghanistan to that country's government, and senior officials said they want to begin the transition this year.

The process would be gradual, with foreign troops remaining in a support role as Afghan forces start to take the lead, officials said. But, if it succeeds, the handover could enable President Obama to fulfill his promise to start withdrawing U.S. troops next year.

"As of today, we have a road map which will lead towards a transition to Afghan leadership starting this year, at which point our publics will start to see the progress for which they quite rightly have been asking," Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after a two-day meeting here with NATO foreign ministers.

Officials said the framework has been reviewed with the Afghan government, which is expected to give its formal approval at an international conference in Kabul in July.

The NATO agreement formalizes among the allies a part of Obama's Afghanistan strategy that has been in place since December, when he announced that he would deploy 30,000 troops this year and begin to withdraw them in mid-2011. As the strategy was being formulated during White House meetings in the fall, plans were made to identify provinces and districts with little or no insurgent presence as candidates to be turned over to Afghan government security control before the end of this year.

The final selection, expected to be announced at a NATO summit in November, will allow U.S. and NATO forces to observe the performance of Afghan forces in relatively benign environments. Assuming the process proceeds as planned, it will provide a visible measure of progress to report in a major administration assessment of the strategy due in December.

The framework adopted Friday sets out some of the conditions for turning over security responsibilities in the selected regions to the Afghan government, including the number and performance of Afghan forces and the local political situation, officials said.

"It will not be a pullout. It will not be a run for the exits," Rasmussen said. "What will happen is, we will hand over lead responsibility to the Afghans, and our soldiers will move into more of a supportive role."

The approach mirrors the strategy used in Iraq, where the United States gradually turned over responsibility to the government on a province-by-province basis. That process was significantly delayed, however, when security worsened in many of Iraq's 18 provinces rather than improving as anticipated.

Rasmussen's comments reflected guarded optimism at the meeting about the Afghanistan effort and a desire to show progress to people in many countries that have turned against the war.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that she was encouraged by the "new level of understanding and commitment from our international partners," who contributed 10,000 troops and trainers to augment the U.S. surge.

Clinton said she was confident that NATO would receive the 450 military and police trainers it is seeking to boost the transition.

Mark Sedwill, the top NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, told reporters that "the ambition and the resources are finally aligned" in Afghanistan, after years of inadequate investment.

In addition, he said, officials have realized how important it is to resolve the political tensions that fuel the insurgency. He described an "electrifying moment" in Marja, the site of a recent military operation, when NATO officials realized that residents had turned to the Taliban after local power brokers essentially converted the local police into their own militia.

As NATO forces target Kandahar, the site of their next major operation, he said, "we're going to try to get the politics right."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.


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