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KABUL — More details about the third phase of Afghanistan’s security transition released Monday indicate that Afghan forces will take the lead in some areas still under persistent threat from insurgents.

The announced transfer of areas such as Helmand province’s Nahr-e Saraj district, where British forces are still fighting bloody battles with entrenched Taliban, was in line with ISAF commander Gen. John Allen’s desire, expressed in an interview with The Washington Post, to have Afghan forces take charge of some contested areas while coalition troops are available to backstop them.

Still, most of the areas slated for transfer are in more peaceful parts of the country’s north and west, including the provinces of Kapisa and Parwan, just north of Kabul. But even in those areas, as in areas already handed over to Afghan control, Afghan forces may face resistance, a coalition spokesman acknowledged.

“Nobody says that the insurgency stops ... in the areas that have been transitioned,” Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, said at a news conference Monday. “That is why it is so important that the big step of Tranche Three is taken now, while ISAF still has quite strong forces in the country.”

By transferring some violent areas now, it is hoped that Afghan forces will be better prepared for the last two phases of transition, which will occur after the U.S. has withdrawn all forces associated with the so-called “surge.” Those phases, or tranches, will include some of the most hotly contested areas of the country’s south and east.

After two previous rounds of handovers, Afghan forces have lead responsibility over areas that house about half the country’s population. To varying degrees, coalition forces are still present in those areas to provide air, indirect fire, communications and logistical support.

In Sunday’s announcement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his country’s forces would assume the lead role for securing 122 more districts and cities over the coming months nearly as many as the last two phases combined – bringing the total districts under Afghan control to 260.

Ashraf Ghani, head of Afghanistan’s transition commission, said he expects the new round of handovers to be complete within six months.

But significant numbers of coalition forces could remain in those areas to provide backup and support, Jacobson said.

“That will be based on conditions on the ground in the various areas and districts,” he said.

The new round of handovers will include Kandahar province’s Arghandab district, an area that saw some of the war’s heaviest fighting in 2010, and Helmand’s Garmsir district, where a U.S. helicopter responding to an attack on Afghan police crashed last month, killing four U.S. soldiers.

Jacobson acknowledged that some areas in which Afghan forces would take the lead will be “more challenging” than others. But he highlighted the performance of Afghan forces in recent attacks in Kabul, which were squelched by local police and soldiers with little coalition help, as evidence that the country’s security forces are improving.

A Pentagon progress report on the Afghan campaign in April described Afghan forces as “exceeding expectations,” noting that of 156 Afghan army kandaks, or battalions, 13 are rated as “Independent with Advisors,” the highest classification given. Only one army kandak received that classification in the Pentagon’s last semi-annual report to Congress.

The Pentagon reported even greater improvement among Afghan police, who six months ago didn’t have one unit assessed as “Independent with Advisors.” In the latest assessment, 39 units had achieved that rating.

millhamm@estripes.osd.milTwitter: @mattmillham


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