US President Barack Obama welcomed Kabul’s move on Sunday to have local forces take control of security in a large new slice of the country as an “important step forward.”
In the third phase of a five-tranche transition to bring NATO closer to getting out of the Afghan war, 122 more districts throughout Afghanistan will come under local command, putting Afghan forces in control of security for 75 percent of the population.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said he was “very pleased” with the move, calling it “another tangible sign of progress in our strategy and in the further development of Afghan leadership and responsibility for their own security.”
Praising the “growing strength” of Afghan security forces, he said that the phase was the largest yet, and when implemented, about three-quarters of the population will live in areas transitioning to Afghan control.
Afghan government officials said the handover’s third phase would start immediately and could take as little as six months, although according to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, complete transition in an area can take between 12 and 18 months.
NATO has a total of 130,000 soldiers helping Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government fight an insurgency by hardline Taliban militants, and they are due to withdraw by the end of 2014.
Obama, who is set to host a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21, said Afghan National Security Forces were “strengthening their capacity,” allowing the security transition to remain “on track.”
While NATO is quick to praise the growing skills of the 350,000-strong Afghan forces, officers say the war will not be won on the battlefield.
The White House has said the US will push to modernize NATO, deepen partnerships and hammer out details of the Afghanistan withdrawal at the summit.
“The Afghan National Security Forces are strengthening their capacity as we remain on track to meet our goal of having the Afghan government fully responsible for security across the country by the end of 2014,” Obama said.