Nine years after US-led forces invaded Afghanistan, NATO now says it has a coherent plan to begin handing over security and governing duties to Afghan provincial authorities by November.
During talks in Tallinn, Estonia, alliance foreign ministers on Friday endorsed guidelines for passing control to the Afghans as foreign forces step up efforts to drive a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda from the country.
“We agreed [on] the approach we will take to transition,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after two days of talks.
“As of today, we have a roadmap that will lead towards transition to Afghan control starting this year, at which point our publics will start to see the progress for which they have quite rightly been asking,” Rasmussen said.
He said he hoped that the Afghan government and the international community would endorse the plan at a conference to be held in Kabul in mid-July, with the transfer of duties starting in November, when NATO holds its next summit in Lisbon.
The Afghans have already taken the lead in security in the capital Kabul, he said.
Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said he expected Afghan local leaders to start assuming control in the more stable provinces stretching north and west from the Khyber Pass to Nimroz.
NATO planners, he told reporters, are trying to determine the conditions needed to ensure the authorities are competent enough to take the lead in security as well as provide fair and good government service and economic development.
“Gradually, as the transition goes through, you would expect them to build up and us to draw down,” Sidwell said.
Allied troops would pull back from frontline combat and play only a supporting role in preparation for an eventual pullout, he said.
The conditions, which are still being worked on, will also seek to ensure that the Afghan authorities reflect the area’s right ethnic and tribal mix, Sedwill said.
“If there were people excluded, even if it’s quiet now, you are just storing up problems for the future,” he said.
The transition plan flows from the revamped strategy for Afghanistan that US President Barack Obama announced in December when he ordered the deployment of 30,000 new troops to the country.
Under the plan, he set July next year as the date for their drawdown to begin.
However, Obama has repeated that the speed of the US drawdown and departure from Afghanistan of US and allied troops will be dictated by how successful they are in stabilizing the country and how quickly the Afghans can take over.
The US and some 10,000 allied reinforcements are joining 90,000 troops drawn from more than 40 nations.
NATO is also pressing for 450 more trainers to build up the Afghan army and police — a key part of the plan to turn security over to the Afghans — and have allied forces assume a supporting role before eventually withdrawing.
Asked why it was so hard for other NATO members to come up with the numbers when Washington was deploying so many new troops, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters she was in fact “heartened” by allies’ response.
“We have a relatively small gap that we’re still working to fill,” the chief US diplomat said.
Not only did she expect the alliance to meet the numbers required but she also hailed the broader spirit of cooperation.