NATO chief pledges to meet Afghan handover goal

NATO chief pledges to meet Afghan handover goal

KABUL, Afghanistan - The Associated Press
NATO chief pledges to meet Afghan handover goal

AA Photo

NATO said today it is on track to fully hand over responsibility for securing Afghanistan to local forces by the end of 2014 as scheduled.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said Afghan troops would be ready to take the lead role around the country by mid-2013, allowing international combat forces to move into a support and training role.

"We will stick to the road map and we will gradually hand over by 2014," Rasmussen told Afghan special forces during a visit to their main training base outside Kabul. He also met President Hamid Karzai.

The security transition began last year, when NATO handed over responsibility for areas that are home to half the nation's population with coalition forces in those regions now in a support role. The handover took place in two stages and a third tranche is expected before a NATO summit in Chicago in late May. Another three phases are planned over the coming year.

"Thanks to the courage and commitment of the Afghan forces we will reach out common goal of a secure Afghanistan," Rasmussen said. "What I have seen makes me confident that we will fulfill our goal of handing over responsibility to the Afghan national security forces." Afghan security forces now number about 330,000 and are to increase to 352,000 by the end of the year. They are expected to take over much of the fighting as the U.S. draws down an additional 23,000 troops to 68,000 by the end of September. U.S. troop levels reached a high of about 100,000 last year.

There are about 8,500 trained Afghan commandos in nine battalions and 500 special operations troops.

Afghan commando units and special forces are expected to play a key role in fighting the Taliban in areas where American and other foreign troops are thinning their presence as part of a drawdown and a realignment of forces. They include parts of the restive east along the Afghan border with Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.

Rasmussen said the Afghan special forces are "some of the best in the world" and "the backbone of our strategy for handing over the lead responsibility to the Afghan national security forces." The United States has already given Afghans authority over special operations that involve raids of Afghan homes. The two countries last week signed an agreement giving NATO troops only a support role in the raids. The majority of these raids are nighttime operations in which U.S. and Afghan troops descend without warning on homes or residential compounds searching for insurgents.

The raids are widely resented by Afghans, and Karzai had repeatedly called for the halt to all night raids by international forces, saying they would have to stop before he would sign a much-anticipated pact governing the long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

The agreement on special forces raids was a key step toward finalizing a long-term "strategic partnership" to govern the future U.S. presence in Afghanistan. That partnership document is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama and Karzai ahead of the Chicago summit. It will be broad-ranging to include economic assistance and development issues, and will pave the way for a more detailed agreement on the status of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

Afghan special forces are among the most active units in the country's military. More than 97 percent of night operations are combined, involving Afghan special forces and almost 40 percent of night operations are now Afghan-led.

Rasmussen said that the international community was committed to training and funding Afghan forces past 2014, but he did not expect that it would be at current levels. It costs more than $7 billion a year to fund the operation of Afghan forces, and the United States alone in the past two years spent more than $22 billion to train and equip them.

"We are now discussing the long-term size and no decision has been made," Rasmussen said. He said that a "number of 230,000" had been mention at a cost of just over $4 billion.