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WASHINGTON — The first wave of security transfers from U.S. to Afghan forces is already underway and looking good in the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the U.S. commander in the region said Thursday.

For the next six months, U.S. and coalition troops will test the waters in the former key Taliban stronghold, in what could be a bellwether for the larger U.S. plan to drawdown troops nationwide from next month through 2014.

“The transition in Lashkar Gah ... is going very well,” said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of 30,000 coalition forces in Regional Command-Southwest’s Helmand and Nimruz provinces.

The U.S. is expected to sign off on the completed transition in that city in July, part of the “first tranche” of transitioning cities outlined by President Hamid Karzai in March. A second wave is expected in January 2012 with the third next July.

Toolan described a “thinning out process,” closing some patrol bases and handing control of others to Afghans as U.S. combat troops turn into advisors. In the city, the plan is for more checkpoints currently manned by the Afghan army to be transferred to Afghan police, which could take a year and a half.

If the coalition can deepen its hold on the central Helmand River Valley through the fall, he hopes to add more districts, including Garmsir and Nawa, to the transition roster in the next two waves.

That move would free up 1,200 to 1,500 troops to be redistributed in the north, especially in the upper Sangin and upper Garesh valleys, where fighting remains more intense as tribes with Taliban support try to hold on to territory coveted for its production of drug revenue.

“It’s a long-term process,” Toolan said. “The good thing is we’re starting early, we’re testing the waters, we’re seeing how they’re doing, and at the same time we’re able to come back in, reinforce when needed. And I think it’s working.”

Toolan said in the past three months, the coalition has seized 30,000 tons of poppies worth more than $70 million in Helmand. But that may account for just two percent of the amount in Helmand and he could not estimate whether the seizure would have a tangible effect on the insurgency.

With the harvest season closing, Toolan said his forces have seen “very little violence” and fighting has been far lighter than anticipated in most areas.

Al-Qaida’s announcement that Ayman al-Zawahiri was taking over from Osama bin Laden would have no impact on Toolan’s forces, he predicted.

Mid-level Taliban in the region take orders from senior Taliban in Pakistan, he said, and he’s seen no real al-Qaida influence in Taliban battlefield guidance or finances.

baronk@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @StripesBaron

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