- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday said his security forces soon will take charge of securing seven areas around Afghanistan — the first step toward his goal of having Afghan police and soldiers protecting the entire nation by the end of 2014.

In a speech peppered with criticism of the international effort, MR. Karzai said the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east are slated for transition from NATO-led forces to Afghan soldiers and police beginning in July.

In addition, all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, are on the transition list. Also slated for transition is Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district, which is along a main route to the Pakistan border and in proximity to dangerous areas of neighboring provinces, he said.

“The Afghan nation doesn’t want the defense of this country to be in the hands of others anymore. … This is our responsibility to raise our flag with honor and pride,” Mr. Karzai told hundreds of dignitaries and Afghan police and soldiers at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in the capital.

The NATO forces currently in the lead or partnered with Afghan forces in these areas will thin out, take on support roles such as training and mentoring, redeploy to other areas or go home. President Obama has said that he wants U.S. forces to start withdrawing in July if conditions allow. Mr. Karzai’s goal is to have his forces responsible for protecting and defending their homeland in about 3½ years.

Coalition forces have seen heavy fighting in parts of southern, northern and eastern Afghanistan as they intensified their campaign against insurgent groups following a surge of troops last year. NATO said that two of its service members were killed on Tuesday in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan. Their nationalities and other details were not released.

So far, 90 coalition troops have been killed in combat this year, 23 this month alone.

Mr. Karzai also struck a nationalistic chord in his speech, reiterating his call for the Taliban to join the peace process. He complained about the international community, saying that its development effort in Afghanistan was disjointed and that night raids, civilian casualties and irresponsible arrests have bolstered the insurgency.

A series of recent airstrikes that have lead to the death of numerous civilians has seriously eroded relations between Mr. Karzai and the U.S.-led military coalition. The death of civilians must end, he said.

He emphasized that the war against militants should not be fought in the villages of Afghanistan but should be directed at the “roots and safe havens” — a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan, where insurgents take refuge and plot attacks out of reach of Afghan and coalition troops.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Mr. Karzai’s speech was merely symbolic because the nation remained occupied by thousands of foreign forces. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Mujahid said that only time will tell if Afghan forces can secure the transition areas.

“We will fight until the last foreign soldier is gone,” he said. “Any place where there are foreign troops will be under attack.”

Mr. Karzai said the international community should provide financial assistance for vital infrastructure projects even as he argued that the provincial reconstruction teams, meant to train government officials and assist their activities at the local level, should be phased out.

“The PRTs, the private security companies and militias, and night raids should be ended as soon as possible, and by putting an end to these things will of course strengthen the central government,” Mr. Karzai said.

He also said all international assistance should be handled through the Afghan government’s budget.

At an international conference in Kabul in July, donor nations approved a 10-page communique that restated strong support for channeling at least 50 percent of development aid through the Afghan government within two years if the government reforms, reduces corruption and strengthens its public financial management systems.

“There should be more cooperation between Afghanistan and the U.N offices working in different areas throughout the country,” he said. “We have asked for a report about the expenses of the U.N.”

Mr. Karzai‘s speech reflected his desire not to be dependent on foreign forces forever, although the Afghan security forces have yet to overcome the lack of training and equipment, illiteracy, corruption, and shortages of top officers and international mentors. Mr. Karzai delivered his speech at a ceremony marking the graduation of a third class of Afghan army officers.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Mr. Karzai‘s announcement.

“This represents the next stage of Afghanistan’s journey, not the destination,” he said in a statement. “And every step of the way will be determined by conditions on the ground.”

But Mr. Fogh Rasmussen warned that the transition is not a sign the allies can start withdrawing from Afghanistan, stressing it was vital that NATO keep up training Afghan forces “in order to ensure that transition is irreversible.”

“I understand that as this transition gets under way, political leaders are facing pressure to bring their troops home for good,” he said, but NATO’s principal approach remains “in together, out together.”

Amir Shah, Rahim Faiez and Solomon Moore in Kabul and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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