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HERAT, Afghanistan — The 38-nation International Security Assistance Force is preparing to assume responsibility for another chunk of Afghanistan from the United States.

The ISAF, which has been in charge of the northern sector of Afghanistan for about 20 months, is to take over the west of the country early this summer.

That will leave the United States with the southern and eastern sectors — at least for a while.

Col. Phil Bookert hopes to give up command of Regional Command West in early June. He said Thursday that everything is going according to plan so far. ISAF began the process of moving into the west with the Italians taking over the provincial reconstruction team from the United States in Herat on Thursday.

“In the last eight months, the security situation has improved and it’s much more stable than it was before,” Bookert said of the four provinces he supervises in west Afghanistan.

He said his biggest concerns are criminal activity and narcotics. The two may be connected in a country known as one of the world’s top opium suppliers.

Bookert said that crime has declined, though. He credits that to an active Afghan police force and a new willingness by citizens to report criminal activities to the authorities.

Maj. Joseph Bowman, an ISAF spokesman, said there have been few problems in the north of the country since ISAF took over.

“Overall, it’s been a very smooth transition, and that’s what we expect in the west, too,” he said.

Bowman, one of fewer than 100 Americans working for ISAF, said Phase 3 would include an ISAF takeover of the south. Phase 4 — the east — would complete the handover from the United States to an international force.

“There’s no timetable for Phases 3 and 4,” Bowman said.

Currently, there are about 8,200 ISAF troops in Afghanistan. Through early January, that included a high of 2,294 troops from Germany to a low of three from Austria. Other large contributors include France (906), Canada (842), Belgium (633) and Spain (561).

“We do expect the number of troops to increase as we take over more territory,” Bowman said.

Asked if that takeover is dependent on conditions and events, or simply a hesitancy of countries to contribute troops, Bookert went for a third option.

“I think it’s both,” he said. “I think it’s conditions first. And we have improved conditions in most of the country.”

But are countries unwilling to send troops to areas considered high risk?

“That’s a political question,” Bookert said. “I can’t answer that.”

Bowman said he wasn’t “aware of any instances of nations refusing to participate.” But he said a definitive answer to that question would have to come from the countries themselves — or someone at least a few pay grades higher than his at NATO headquarters.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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