Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has announced seven areas across the country where local forces will take charge of security from NATO-led forces starting in July. The move lays the groundwork for the eventual withdrawal of all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But critics remain skeptical about the preparedness of Afghan police and soldiers to take security control.
Mr. Karzai announced the first phase of the security transition Tuesday, while addressing senior army and police officers at the National Military Academy in Kabul.
Beginning in July, Mr. Karzai says security responsibility in Panjshir, Bamiyan and Kabul provinces will be transferred to the Afghan forces. However, NATO and U.S. forces will remain in the Sarobi district of Kabul province. The restive Afghan district is close to areas where Taliban insurgents frequently carry out attacks and is also located along a main road to the border with Pakistan.
In addition, President Karzai says provincial capitals Herat, Lashkar Gah, Mazar-e-Sharif and Mehterlam will be placed under Afghan security control.
The president told the gathering that the Afghan nation does not want the defense of this country to be in the hands of others anymore, saying it is our responsibility to raise the Afghan flag with honor and dignity.
U.S and NATO forces have been training Afghan police and troops to enable them to take security responsibility of the entire country by 2014. A smooth and successful transition is vital for the withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan.
But critics remain skeptical about the ability and motivation of the Afghan forces, citing among other challenges - corruption, a lack of equipment and, most of all, a growing Taliban insurgency. Analysts say that the areas President Karzai has chosen in the first phase are relatively secure and peaceful and it could be an attempt to test the abilities of local forces.
Sameena Ahmed is the regional director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
She says it will also be important to see how the militant groups in Afghanistan and their allies in neighboring Pakistan interpret the transition plan.
"I think one has to be cautious about the signaling-how will it be read by the Afghan Taliban insurgents that are operating out of Pakistani bases but also their Pakistani militant allies. Will they too see this as perhaps a weakening of the U.S resolve to stay in the fight in Afghanistan? So it is going to be absolutely essential to make sure that with the support of the foreign forces the Afghan security forces that take this lead are able to then secure these areas," she said.
A Taliban spokesman has termed President Karzai's speech merely symbolic, saying the country remains occupied by thousands of foreign forces. He said only time will tell whether Afghan forces can secure the transition areas.
During Tuesday's speech in Kabul, the Afghan president called for the Taliban to join his government's peace process to bring stability to the war-torn country.
Mr. Karzai also criticized U.S and NATO-led forces, saying civilian deaths caused by coalition operations, night raids, and irresponsible arrests have bolstered the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Civilian deaths in anti-insurgency operations have become a source of friction between President Karzai and the NATO forces stationed in the country. But Afghan observers say the president's criticism is politically motivated and is meant to deflect condemnation of his own incompetence as well as inability to check corruption.
Ajmal Samadi is the director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Rights Monitor. "He has to demonstrate commitment to protection of Afghan people regardless of his political agenda. So when Taliban is killing people systematically and deliberately, we want President Karzai to condemn these incidents as strongly as he condemns NATO. And also the crimes that pro-government militias are committing in different parts of the country where it is raping people whether it is other kinds of problems that militias are inflicting on people President Karzai must also condemn and stop those acts of violence," Samadi said.
The Afghan human rights activist says that civilian deaths are not helping warring parties in Afghanistan. Samadi believes the future of the conflict depends on who is doing more to protect civilians.
U.S. President Barack Obama plans to start withdrawing American troops in July if ground conditions allow. More than 1,500 U.S soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the war started nine years ago and the annual cost of the U.S military campaign is more than $100 billion.
In a recently conducted survey by Washington Post/ABC news, two-thirds of Americans believe it is not worth continuing the war in Afghanistan.