With the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal a little over two years away, Afghan forces appear primed to take the lead in their own security.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that beginning early next year, Afghan troops will take charge of security in areas of the country that are home to half the country's population. The handover is a vital step towards a successful drawdown of NATO combat troops.
The announcement means Afghan forces will be in charge of security of eight of 34 provinces and nearly a dozen province capitals.
U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition's top commander in the country, has said the plan is to now achieve the transition in five steps, with the last starting as early as the fall of 2013 instead of later that year or early 2014. The first seven areas began to shift to Afghan control in July 2011.
Initially, the idea was to have Afghan security forces take charge in the most peaceful areas first. But Allen said that Afghan, coalition officials and others recently decided it would be unwise to transfer the most volatile provinces in 2014, when the international force's footprint will be shrinking.
Soldiers from Company D, 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment--out of Fort Carson--transferred control of the Pusht Rod district to Afghan forces Nov. 20. The district, part of the Farah Province, had a population of 52,000 in 2004.
To mark the occasion, soldiers lowered the American flag that had been flying over the Joint Combat Outpost since 9/11. The Afghanistan flag was raised in its place.
"It was a surreal and meaningful moment when we lowered the American flag," said Capt. Anthony Hoefler, commander of Company D. "The flag symbolized the unwavering dedication to the mission of all Delta Company soldiers.
"Although the moment was bittersweet, it was also a proud moment as our Afghanistan National Army counterparts assumed responsibility for JCOP Pusht Rod and the security of the Pusht Rod district," he said.
NATO's top official, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the transition process did not mean an end to the international community's work in Afghanistan.
"We will keep our commitment to training and supporting the Afghan security forces throughout the transition process, and beyond," he said in a statement.