KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that the nation's forces will soon take charge of security in areas of the country that are home to half of Afghanistan's population.
The handover, expected to begin by early next year, is the second step in a transition that Karzai hopes will leave Afghan forces in control of the entire country by the end of 2014, when the U.S.-led coalition's combat mission is scheduled to end. After that date, a much smaller foreign force will remain to continue training Afghan soldiers and police and battle militancy.
A successful handover is key to NATO's plan to withdraw most of its combat forces from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting there. Western officials and experts have expressed pessimism about the ability of Karzai and his armed forces to assume command of their country. If they fail, the militant Taliban could stage a comeback.
Karzai's announcement means that Afghan forces already are, or soon will, lead security in eight of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and nearly a dozen provincial capitals. Most of the areas on the second list are in the north and west, but it also includes places that have experienced recent attacks, as well as parts of the country near Taliban-controlled areas.
Marjah district of Helmand province -- the site of a major offensive by coalition forces last year -- is included in the second round. Security has improved in Marjah, where the police once were so corrupt that residents feared them more than the Taliban. Coalition operations to rout the Taliban in February 2010 yielded slower than expected returns, but a troop buildup later in the year pushed insurgents out of the main center of the district.
Though excited, many governors in the newly listed provinces have complained the transition can't succeed unless they receive more police, soldiers and equipment.
At a meeting last month in Kabul, some governors predicted the transition would go smoothly in their regions while others worried insurgents would move in and overwhelm still nascent Afghan security forces. Several governors made the plea for extra manpower and equipment.
The first seven areas began transition in July. They were four provincial capitals -- Herat, Lashkar Gah, Mehterlam and Mazer-e-Sharif -- all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces and all of Kabul province, except the restive Surobi district.
All or parts of 18 provinces are on the second slate of transition areas that Karzai approved.
Nimroz, Day Kundi, Samangan, Takhar and Balkh provinces in their entirety are on the list. In addition, the provincial capitals of Ghazni, Wardak, Badghis, Nangarhar, Badakhshan, Ghor and Jawzjan provinces are included. The rest of the sites are separate districts in various provinces.
The transition process recently was accelerated.
Instead of a six-stage transition process, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition's top commander in the country, has said the plan is to now achieve the transition in five steps, with the last starting as early as the fall of 2013 instead of later that year or early 2014.
Initially, the idea was to have Afghan security forces take charge in the most peaceful areas first.
But Allen said that Afghan, coalition officials and others recently decided it would be unwise to transfer the most volatile provinces in 2014, when the international force's footprint will be shrinking.
NATO's top official, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the transition process did not mean an end to the international community's work in Afghanistan.
"We will keep our commitment to training and supporting the Afghan security forces throughout the transition process, and beyond," he said in a statement.
British officials welcomed the inclusion of Nad Ali district of Helmand province where British troops are deployed.
"The Afghan national security forces are demonstrating that they are more capable day by day," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. "Circumstances remain challenging but steady and positive progress is being made."
Separately, NATO said two of its service members have been killed in southern Afghanistan, one in combat operations and the other by a roadside bomb.
NATO statements issued on Sunday did not include any further details. The main brunt of the fighting between international forces and insurgents is taking place in the east and in the south.
The deaths bring NATO's total deaths to 24 this month and 514 for the year.