Nato ready to risk swifter Afghan handover

A classified document seen by The Sunday Times shows planners are mulling the idea of completing the planned transfer of power in 2013

The Sunday Times

Nato has drawn up plans to accelerate the passing of security to Afghan soldiers and police before it withdraws from the country.

It currently plans to hand over all 34 provinces to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014. But a classified Nato document seen by The Sunday Times shows planners have put forward the idea of completing the transfer a year early. “The plan is to have all the provinces transferred to Afghan control by the end of 2013,” a senior Nato official confirmed.

The intention of a hastier transfer would be to give Nato more time to assess the success of the process and to intervene if security deteriorates, Nato and US officials said.

General John Allen, head of American and Nato forces, is pushing for an even faster handover.

The United States had initially wanted Afghan security forces to take control of the most peaceful areas first, but this plan has now been scrapped.

“We would like this speeded up while we still have enough combat power in the country to support the Afghans in the more troubled areas,” an American official said. Nato is committed to withdrawing the majority of its forces by the end of 2014.

The organisation has acknowledged that deals may have to be struck between Afghan commanders and insurgent leaders in some of the most violent provinces.

“Local army and police commanders will do a deal with the insurgents. They will do it in an Afghan fashion,” said a senior western official. “But it doesn’t mean the problem goes away. This will be one of the big repercussions of the transition in those much harder areas.”

Western experts fear some of the provinces listed in the Nato document may be transferred too early.

Kunar, for example, which the planners want to hand over to the Afghans midway through next year, remains one of the most violent provinces in Afghanistan. Analysts warn that the country’s nascent security forces might crumble under insurgent pressure in such places.

The risk was underlined by a series of events in Kunar earlier this year. During a withdrawal from parts of the province, American commanders handed over a remote base in the Pech river valley where they had lost more than 100 soldiers and hundreds more had been wounded.

As soon as the US forces left, the Afghan commander in charge of the battalion controlling the valley fled with more than a dozen of his senior staff. The remaining soldiers looted the base. They ripped out plumbing and copper wiring and sold it in the bazaar and did the same with air-conditioning units.

There were also reports that some of the security guards stationed in the surrounding outposts had sold their weapons to the Taliban and allowed the insurgents to pass through the valley unimpeded.

“The Afghans went into a sort of bunker mentality. Morale was extremely low. They felt we’d abandoned them,” said Captain Casey Brown, an American intelligence officer stationed in the province.

The police force did not perform much better. Commanders deserted their checkpoints, allowing the Taliban to regain control of the road, which they laced with homemade bombs.

Some police robbed stores in local villages. Shopkeepers in one village armed themselves with axes to fend off officers who were looting their premises.

Within weeks of leaving, the Americans redeployed troops in the valley to keep an eye on the Afghans.

The Nato planners’ revised timetable requires the approval of the Afghan government, which is expected to announce within weeks when the next wave of provinces will be handed over.

Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province in the east, is expected to be transferred to the Afghans by the end of the year along with six other districts, despite a strong insurgent presence.

The city was the scene of a siege this year when gunmen and suicide bombers stormed a bank, killing at least 40 people and wounding more than 70. Closed-circuit television footage showed gunmen, believed to belong to the Haqqani network, executing customers.

Wardak province, where Taliban fighters shot down a Chinook helicopter and killed 22 Navy Seals in August, will be handed over by the end of next year if the Nato document is approved.

The southern province of Helmand would continue to be handed over district by district.

Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual homeland, would be among the last to come under Afghan control.

The final two to be transferred would be the violent southeastern provinces of Khost and Paktia. These are home to the Haqqani network — Afghanistan’s most lethal insurgent group, which has been the target of American drone strikes and recent ground operations.

“We have to be out of the country at the end of 2014. There’s no other option,” said a senior Nato official. “We’re saying the transfers are based on conditions on the ground but really we’re working to a timetable. There’s not much room for choice.”

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