KABUL, Afghanistan – An emboldened Afghan president said Tuesday that his nation's security forces will take over from the U.S.-led coalition in seven parts of the country, a first step toward his goal of having Afghan police and soldiers in charge by the end of 2014 so foreign combat troops can go home.
The tenuous step comes despite NATO predictions of bloody fighting this spring and Afghans' fears that their forces aren't up to the task.
In a speech peppered with criticism of the international military and civilian effort, Karzai asserted himself as a national leader and said the Afghan forces were on a path toward self-sufficiency.
"The Afghan nation doesn't want the defense of this country to be in the hands of others anymore," Karzai told hundreds of dignitaries and Afghan police and soldiers at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in the capital.
He also reiterated his call for Afghan insurgents to lay down their weapons and reconcile with his government. Transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces means international troops can eventually leave, which is a key demand of Taliban leaders Karzai is trying to lure to the negotiating table.
There have been informal contacts between insurgents and the Afghan government, but publicly the Taliban have not expressed interested in reaching a political resolution to the war.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid dismissed Karzai's speech, saying the nation remains occupied by nearly 140,000 foreign forces. Only time will tell if the Afghan forces will succeed in securing the transition areas, he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
"We will fight until the last foreign soldier is gone," he said.
Karzai said the first phase of transition will start in July in the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east. In addition, Afghan police and soldiers will take charge in all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, and all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district. Afghan security forces already have assumed the responsibility for security in the greater Kabul area, which is home to about 5 million people — about one-fifth to one-quarter of the nation's population.
NATO forces that are currently in transition areas will thin out, take on support roles, including training and mentoring, be redeployed to other areas of the country or sent home. President Barack Obama wants to start withdrawing U.S. troops in July if conditions allow.
While Karzai's announcement showed his nation's desire to end its reliance on foreign forces, it was not evidence that Afghan security forces have overcome a lack of training and equipment, illiteracy, corruption and shortages of top Afghan officers and international mentors. Still, the beginning of transition is a boost to troop-contributing nations who want to reassure war-weary citizens back home that their commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Karzai's announcement, but warned that transition was not a signal for allies to withdraw from Afghanistan.
"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."
Except for Lahkar Gah, none of the areas on the transition list are in southern Afghanistan where the fiercest fighting has occurred.
Norine MacDonald, author of a recent paper titled "Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown," said including Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, on the list was perhaps politically motivated to show progress in the south.
"Security in the south has improved — and dramatically so in some areas that have been taken back from Taliban control — but Lashkar Gah is very vulnerable," she said.
"Unless something changes soon, it is a situation where you transition Lashkar Gah, but leave it surrounded by roads that are more or less compromised," she said. "Leaving the city limits to go to Kandahar, or in any direction, has security risk."
Panjshir and Bamiyan provinces and Herat city were long expected to be on the transition list, yet some city residents remain wary.
"I am personally worried about this because we don't have good security in the surrounding districts," said Ahmad Khan, a 41-year-old restaurant owner in Herat city. "If we don't have international forces in Herat city, the Taliban will be able to attack restaurants, banks or whatever targets they want in the city."
In the northern city of Mazer-e-Sharif, a 29-year-old government employee, Zafer Mohammadi, said the city wasn't ready for transition.
"We are concerned," he said. "First, we don't have professional Afghan policemen and they're not equipped with good weapons or vehicles and they don't have helicopters. ... We have seen an increase in Taliban attacks recently."
However, Abdul Hameed, 25, a shopkeeper, said he was happy Afghan forces would soon assume responsibility for security.
"We don't want NATO to be in our cities forever," he said. "The only thing that our Army and police need is good salary and equipment. I'm sure the people will support the Afghan police more than anybody else."
In his speech, Karzai complained that the international development effort in Afghanistan was disjointed and said night raids, civilian casualties and irresponsible arrests have bolstered the insurgency. A series of recent coalition airstrikes that have lead to the death of numerous civilians have eroded relations between Karzai and the U.S.-led military coalition.
He emphasized that the war should not be fought in Afghan villages, but in militant refuges — a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan where insurgents plot attacks out of reach of Afghan and coalition troops.
Karzai also 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," Karzai said.
He said international assistance should be channeled through the Afghan government's budget.
"There should be more cooperation between Afghanistan and the U.N offices working in different areas throughout the country," he said.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.