Worrying questions hang over a plan to start switching from Nato to local control in Afghanistan, just weeks before the process is due to start in key cities, officials and experts say.
Exact dates for when the first seven areas will transition are still unclear, a conference on the issue has been postponed twice and the United States has yet to decide how many US troops are leaving this summer.
Neither do outspoken Afghan politicians believe local security forces are sufficiently prepared for the switch amid fears that the Taliban will target the relatively peaceful areas involved.
President Hamid Karzai announced in March that the first wave of transition, in cities such as Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Lashkar Gah, would happen during the Afghan solar month from June 22 to July 22.
He is expected to announce exact dates soon but the process is now unlikely to start before mid to late July, an Afghan official close to the process told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on condition of anonymity.
The official added that an Afghan-led international conference on transition had now been rescheduled, for a second time, to June 28 or 29.
Political analyst Haroun Mir said Karzai had rushed into making the March announcement without realising how complicated the transition would prove and still had no “clear outlook” on how it would work.
“It was a hasty decision, it was more of a political decision,” Mir said.
“Karzai wanted to show that his government is strong and competent but I think that the government did not have a clear picture of what was really the situation.”
Transition is the process by which Afghan forces will gradually take control of security from Nato troops, while Afghan officials become more responsible for administering their country as foreign reconstruction teams withdraw.
The plan is for a phased handover, allowing all foreign combat troops to leave by the end of 2014, plus a large cut in the number of foreign civilians.
The first areas earmarked for a handover are the provinces of Bamiyan, Panjshir and Kabul (except Surobi district and Kabul city) then the towns and cities of Lashkar Gah, Mehtar Lam, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
In Afghanistan this week, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the Afghan government and security forces needed to “step up … for this upcoming transition to be successful”.
Asked recently how many Afghan units could operate independently, General David Rodriguez, the deputy US commander in Afghanistan, said: “It’s a very small percentage at this current time.”
US President Barack Obama is expected to announce soon how many US troops will leave Afghanistan from July amid reports of disagreements between White House aides and the military about the pace of the drawdown.
Western officials say transition will be gradual and that ordinary Afghans will see no change to their daily lives.
Afghan forces already play major roles in the places where transition has been announced and foreign forces are expected to be available if reinforcements are needed.
But Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has warned that it expects the Taliban to try to disrupt the transition.
Some lawmakers are concerned that local security forces are still not well enough equipped or trained, nearly 10 years after US troops first arrived in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime.
Haji Mohammad Abdou is a lawmaker from Balkh province where seven foreign UN staff were killed in April in Mazar-i-Sharif by a mob protesting against the burning of a copy of the Qur’an by a US pastor.
“They are definitely not that prepared,” he told AFP.
“People’s confidence in the strength and capability of Afghan forces faltered following this attack.”
In Herat, where an Italian-led reconstruction team was attacked last month, there are similar concerns, according to lawmaker Mohammad Rafeeq Shaheer.
“The people worry that the drawdown of foreign troops, even though they are not that strong in Herat, will encourage the Taliban to cross over from neighbouring insecure districts,” he said.
Naseema Neyazi, a lawmaker from Helmand province which includes Lashkar Gah, added that “the time is not right” for transition there.
“The Taliban are still active in the province and are waiting for a chance to strike hard,” she warned. – AFP