The second phase of the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has already been planned to take place early next year. A long list of provinces and critical provincial capitals designated for the upcoming second phase has finally been released by the presidential office. This plan of transfer visualizes more than half of Afghanistan's soil handed over to Afghan security forces by early 2012 with such extremely volatile districts as Nad Ali and Marjah having been put on the list only as a last minute decision by the government of Afghanistan.
The inclusion of 18 new areas for the second phase takes the share of Afghan security forces to more than half of the country's geographical expanse and provides for a real test of the strength and capabilities of Afghan forces at a time when the Taliban are on the offensive and Afghanistan finds itself in an increasingly difficult regional and geopolitical environment.
This decision of the government of Afghanistan is bold and consistent with President Karzai's insistence on an early "Afghanization" of security responsibilities. Many quarters and experts have been warning about the government and the president going too fast on delivering the security responsibilities to Afghan security forces.
In many areas such as Helmand and Takhar provinces, there still abound many visible signs of substantial presence and activity by militant groups, chief among them the Taliban. However, the government and the president's decision to go ahead for the second phase of transfer and incorporating a relatively large part of the country into this plan is a laudable decision and speaks of the government's determination to "Afghanize" the security affairs in line with the 2014 deadline.
More than ten years since the ouster of the Taliban regime and with the 2014 deadline fast approaching, there can be no excuse in further postponing what is going to be inevitably the duty of Afghanistan government: security provision for its own people, cities and provinces.
On this count at least, the government and the president deserve credit for facilitating and expediting this process and insisting on putting the government and its own forces in charge even if it means taking risks and depending on a nascent army that still needs many more years of mentoring, training and expansion.
Interestingly enough, the announcement of the details of the second phase comes in the backdrop of the second Bonn Conference which is scheduled to take place on November 5 in Germany. The announcement and the bold decision to designate a substantially vast area of Afghan soil for transfer to Afghan lead can be counted as a forceful demonstration by the government and the president to the delegates of the upcoming Bonn Conference.
For sure.for the participant countries in the upcoming Bonn Conference, it would be encouraging to know that come February 2012, more than half of Afghanistan will be under the protection of Afghan National Security forces despite the odds and challenges that will confront the Afghanistan government. As expected, the U.S.-led international coalition in Kabul has welcomed the announcement.
As the government of Afghanistan and the country's security forces take over yet larger areas of the country from the international coalition, Afghanistan faces mounting geo-political and geo-strategic challenges in its immediate neighborhood. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are certainly far from their best days after the assassination of the High Peace Council chief and ex-president, Burhan ud din Rabbani.
On top of this, the recent ISAF airstrike that killed more than 20 Pakistani border forces has catapulted the U.S.-Pakistan ties to new a low. Pakistan government has responded with blocking the NATO supply trucks and has vowed to re-examine the full spectrum of relations with the U.S. and the international coalition based in Afghanistan.
The souring of relations between Pakistan and the U.S. would further contribute to the complexity and the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan. There are unsubstantiated reports that Pakistan will not participate in the conference. This itself bodes ill for the future of post-2014 Afghanistan and the it undercuts the efforts to build a regional consensus on the issue of Afghanistan.
The fact is that the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan security forces and the progress that the government in Afghanistan is slowly making in owning up its own affairs should be synchronized and coordinated with a larger regional setting in which the roles and responsibilities of Pakistan and Iran are the most crucial.
Efforts are already on by the U.S. and its Af-Pak diplomatic machinery to work towards a kind of conducive post-2014 regional consensus that will allow a dominant role for the U.S. in the geo-political landscape of the region long after 2014.
The government of Afghanistan too has a somewhat subdued and muted role in this project partly owing to its lack of any serious regional initiative and the kind of veiled phobia and mistrust that characterizes its relations with its neighbors. So far, these efforts by the U.S. and the government of Afghanistan - unfortunately still counted as a junior partner - have made no headway in persuading the region in general and Pakistan and Iran in particular to follow the American lead in this project.
Sergey Lavrov, the bright and seasoned Russian foreign minister has openly criticized what Russia perceives as the American ulterior motives in pushing for extended military presence in Afghanistan and central Asia.
To be certain, the U.S.'s larger geopolitical and geostrategic ambitions in the region are intimately correlated with its plans of indefinite stay in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan has a fine thread to tread on given the fact that the U.S. will certainly start to pursue its regional ambitions after it gradually extricates itself from the difficult situation it now faces in Afghanistan.
So what now? Afghanistan government and its security forces are indeed making good progress on the path to taking over the whole of Afghanistan in line with the 2014 deadline; but as long as this progress is not matched with a corresponding improvement in the regional environment and a conducive regional consensus on the need to a free and independent Afghanistan, the gains will continue to be on a shaky ground.
Yet on a third track and more important, whether or not the government of Afghanistan will make matching progress in the area of neutralizing the Taliban - by force or negotiations or a combination of them - is another test of Afghanistan's success over the coming years.