LONDON – The secretary general of NATO said Thursday that alliance forces should begin handing responsibility to Afghan forces in a coordinated way next year in areas where conditions permit.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen issued a statement after talks in London with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The talks come as President Barack Obama weighs a decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan — though alliance nations have been reluctant to commit more troops.
The NATO chief and Brown agree that transition to Afghan leadership is the way forward.
"We can and should start next year to hand lead responsibility to Afghan forces in a coordinated way through NATO where conditions permit," Fogh Rasmussen said in the statement.
Brown, echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said this week that handovers in the volatile southern province of Helmand could begin as early as June. Most of Britain's 9,000 troops are based in Helmand.
But criticism is mounting that the Afghan government is too corrupt and inept to facilitate such handovers.
Obama has said he won't accept any of the Afghanistan war options before him without changes. His own ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, sent a strongly worded cable warning against bolstering the American presence in Afghanistan unless corruption within the Afghan government is addressed.
Brown, like many allied leaders, is faced with mounting public pressure to show that an exit strategy exists, but many think that an increased U.S. presence could ultimately mean more — not fewer — coalition troops.
"Our exit strategy is a function of Afghanization," said Brown's spokesman Simon Lewis, who stressed that handing over responsibility for security would "not necessarily" mean any immediate reduction in troop numbers.
Britain is in an awkward position — it has long been criticized for being too closely aligned to U.S. foreign policy interests, and the Labour-led government paid the price at the polls with fewer parliamentary seats after it decided to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The case for a continued military presence in Afghanistan has been hard to sell as time has passed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Some 232 British soldiers have died over eight years and criticism has mounted over the mission strategy and a lack of equipment. Families of soldiers reacted angrily Thursday to learning that Ministry of Defense personnel have received bonuses of more than $78 million in the last seven months when troops are said to lack equipment.
The alleged benefit of the mission in Afghanistan — a lessened terror threat — has also escaped voters.
Polls indicate that Brown's Labour-led government will lose to the Conservatives in an election next year and he will likely be on his way out before any lasting Afghan handover can take place.
But the loss of British soldiers has appeared to weigh heavily on Brown, who was recently forced to apologize during a televised press conference over misspelling the names of a grieving mother and her son in a handwritten letter of condolence. The 22-year-old died in a roadside blast in Helmand last month.
On the same day that the bodies of six British soldiers were flown home — five of whom were shot to death by an Afghan police officer trained by allied forces in Helmand — a telephone call was broadcast Tuesday between Brown and a grieving mother. Brown was nearly rendered speechless by the irate woman.