NATO general: We can hand off some districts to Afghan forces now

Italian Brig. Gen. Claudio Berto says Thursday that the western metropolis of Herat, for one, is 'quite normal,' and Afghan forces could take the lead from NATO there immediately.

Raheb Homavandi/Reuters
An Italian soldier of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stands guard as an Afghan policeman stands on a roof at Herat's prison in western Afghanistan on Sept. 14.

Though Taliban activity is on the rise in regions of western Afghanistan, a top NATO official said Thursday that some key districts near the Iranian border could potentially transition from NATO to Afghan security control “tomorrow.”

Giving Afghan soldiers and police lead responsibility for handling security in some less violent areas has become a pressing priority for commanders as the US military decides whether it can potentially begin drawing down or repositioning forces throughout the country in July 2011.

To this end, Italian Brig. Gen. Claudio Berto, the head of the NATO effort in western Afghanistan, said that the city of Herat is “quite normal.”

Herat is a bustling border town where “all the goods” in the bazaar come from Iran in a region that is considered an economic engine and one of the wealthiest in the country, Berto added in a briefing with Pentagon reporters Thursday.

Other districts in his command – a 240-square-mile area with some 7,000 NATO troops partnering with nearly 12,000 Afghan soldiers and police – are more violent, and handing over control of them to Afghan forces could take “a matter of years.”

“The situation is not the same in other provinces and the other cities. It takes more time. But I would like to underline that Herat is ready, it is ready to begin the transition,” Berto said.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told Reuters last week that he had drafted a “very tentative” plan to begin identifying areas where NATO troops are less badly needed and could hand over security to Afghan forces.

Berto cautioned that security in the northern area of his command “is worse,” though “many” other districts could be “eligible” for transition over the course of the next six to 24 months.

“Of course there are other areas where we don’t see transition being possible within two years,” he noted.

NATO soldiers in western Afghanistan have recently seen enemy fighters changing their tactics and stepping up roadside bombing attacks. As recently as last year, Taliban fighters tended to favor small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, said Berto, who recently lost five soldiers in an attack.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's efforts to reach out to former Taliban fighters and convince them to put down their weapons "are having a really good result" in some areas of his command, Berto said, pointing to a band of 23 insurgents who recently joined the program.

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