More urgency needed on transition: Afghan official
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's government and its international backers need urgently to put Afghans in charge of security and governance by a 2014 deadline, one of the officials in charge of the protracted handover said on Thursday.
Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who is chairman of the security transition, dismissed fears that plans for a NATO-led coalition to bring troops home would echo the hasty Russian withdrawal in 1989 that started a slide to civil war.
He also said most of the seven areas chosen to kick off the transition would be largely under Afghan control by the time of official handovers scheduled for late July.
"We must introduce a sense of urgency both among the Afghan government ourselves, and the Afghan people and on the part of the international community," Ghani told a news conference at the end of a two-day transition conference.
The conference was held just days after a brazen assault on Kabul's Intercontinental hotel, that lasted five hours, and ended with 12 dead. The Taliban said Afghan officials attending the transition meeting were among their targets.
NATO air power had to be called in to end the attack, which raised questions about the readiness of Afghan forces to fight the battle-hardened insurgency, but Ghani said the departure of foreign forces would not be a trigger for war.
"One point must be very clear, this transition is not similar to the transition that was carried out at the time of Dr Najib, the last communist president and people should not be concerned about this," he said.
The long-term framework for cooperation with the international community, the huge investment in the police, army and intelligence services, and their growing capacity, all gave him confidence they could secure the country, Ghani said.
The meeting tackled security concerns and the thornier issues of government provision of services like education and healthcare.
In many parts of the country these are funded and run in part by the foreign countries with troops fighting there, and the security transition is supposed to be matched by a parallel civilian transition to central government control.
The details of that change worry foreign observers because they are critical to Kabul's credibility, particularly in areas where the Taliban claims to provide key services like justice.
The security transition has been thoroughly rehearsed, with many of the areas chosen for the first phase ones with few security concerns and a correspondingly low foreign military presence, like the anti-Taliban Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces.
Other areas, like the city of Lashkar Gah in the insurgent stronghold of Helmand province, have had priority on the best trained and equipped of the new security forces.
There the handover of checkpoints and other security infrastructure will go on for weeks before the ceremony, which officials say will likely be very low key.
"The exact day (for the handover) is the last week of Saratan, although this is a formality," Ghani said, speaking through a translator, and referring to the Afghan month that ends on July 22 in the Western calendar.
(Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Michael Roddy)