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Afghan forces to take lead in securing 7 areas

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By DEB RIECHMANN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 12:17 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An emboldened Afghan president said Tuesday that his nation's security forces will take over from the U.S.-led coalition in seven parts of the country, a first step toward his goal of having Afghan police and soldiers in charge by the end of 2014 so foreign combat troops can go home.

The tenuous step comes despite NATO predictions of bloody fighting this spring and Afghans' fears that their forces aren't up to the task.

In a speech peppered with criticism of the international military and civilian effort, Karzai asserted himself as a national leader and said the Afghan forces were on a path toward self-sufficiency.

"The people of Afghanistan no longer desire to see others defend their country for them," Karzai told hundreds of dignitaries and Afghan police and soldiers at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in the capital.

He also reiterated his call for Afghan insurgents to lay down their weapons and reconcile with his government. Transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces means international troops can eventually leave, which is a key demand of Taliban leaders Karzai is trying to lure to the negotiating table.

There have been informal contacts between insurgents and the Afghan government, but publicly the Taliban have not expressed interested in reaching a political resolution to the war.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid dismissed Karzai's speech, saying the nation remains occupied by nearly 140,000 foreign forces. Only time will tell if the Afghan forces will succeed in securing the transition areas, he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

"We will fight until the last foreign soldier is gone," he said.

Karzai said the first phase of transition will start in July in the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east. In addition, Afghan police and soldiers will take charge in all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, and all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district. Afghan security forces already have assumed the responsibility for security in the greater Kabul area, which is home to about 5 million people - about one-fifth to one-quarter of the nation's population.

NATO forces that are currently in transition areas will thin out, take on support roles, including training and mentoring, be redeployed to other areas of the country or sent home. President Barack Obama wants to start withdrawing U.S. troops in July if conditions allow.

In his speech, Karzai complained that the international development effort in Afghanistan was disjointed and said night raids, civilian casualties and irresponsible arrests have bolstered the insurgency. A series of recent coalition airstrikes that have lead to the death of numerous civilians have eroded relations between Karzai and the U.S.-led military coalition.

He emphasized that the war should not be fought in Afghan villages, but in militant refuges - a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan where insurgents plot attacks out of reach of Afghan and coalition troops.


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