Afghan Forces Take Formal Control Of Security Operations

The White House says the mission in Afghanistan marked an important milestone on Tuesday: The hand-off of lead security responsibility from U.S. troops to Afghan forces. It's a key step as Americans prepare to withdraw nearly all combat troops by the end of 2014. Separately, the Obama administration announced the opening of talks with the Taliban about a political settlement to the war.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There were two major announcements today regarding Afghanistan. First, U.S. officials plan to meet with representatives of the Taliban to begin negotiations toward ending the 12-year-old war. That meeting is set to take place in Doha, Qatar. And today in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai and the top NATO official announced that Afghans, not American troops, are now taking the lead when it comes to security. Here's NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: Ten years ago, there were no Afghan national security forces. Now you have 350,000 Afghan troops and police, a formidable force, and time and again, we have seen them dealing quickly and competently with complex attacks.

SIEGEL: Joining us now is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's just back from Afghanistan. Good to see you, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to see you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with Afghan forces. What does putting the Afghans in the lead actually mean?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, what it means is the Afghans are now responsible for security in every province, every district around the country. The announcement today was the last phase in turning over the remaining areas to Afghan control.

Now, of course, the American troops will end their combat role at the end of next year, so this means the Afghans still have roughly 18 months to get ready, and we're seeing the American troops over there move increasingly to the background. They're encouraging the Afghans, helping them get the kinks out before that final turnover.

Now, the Americans I saw over there are pretty much staying on their bases now, and it's the Afghans going out on the missions, and the Americans are giving them some support, medevacs for the wounded, airstrikes against Taliban fighters, some surveillance too. But, again, it's the Afghans that are actually getting out in the field.

SIEGEL: Now, we just heard the NATO secretary-general describe Afghan troops as, and it's a quote, "a formidable force." Is that what you saw?

BOWMAN: Well, formidable in some places, not so much in others. It's still very much a mixed bag after all this time. And everyone I talked with over there is kind of holding their breath to see if the Afghans can do well, if they can go on the offensive against the Taliban, withstand their attacks. But the Afghans are taking the brunt of the casualties now.

Here's the latest casualty rate: about 30 Afghan casualties that's killed and wounded for every single American casualties. But there is still a lot of shortcomings, and it's important to know that there are different Afghan forces. You have the army, and then you have the uniformed police, and then the local police, which is kind of like a neighborhood watch.

Now, one problem we saw is they're not working very well together in many cases. They don't trust each other. They're from different ethnic groups, different parts of the country, but they have to work together to be successful. Another problem: Some of the Afghan security forces are cutting deals with the Taliban. Basically, you don't shoot at me. I won't shoot at you. And we saw both problems everywhere we went.

SIEGEL: Yeah, which brings us to the other announcement today, that there'll be negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. What's the significance of that?

BOWMAN: Well, it is significant that the Taliban are actually sitting down, first with the Americans and later with the Afghans. But remember, it was just roughly 18 months ago that the Taliban started talking, and then a few weeks later, it all fell apart.

SIEGEL: So how will these talks go forward?

BOWMAN: Well, first, there will be a meeting in Doha, Qatar, with American officials, representatives of the Taliban, and this is all blessed by Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. And then that'll be followed by the Taliban directly talking with the Afghan government.

And the idea is pretty simple. Everyone agrees that this war won't be won on the battlefield. There has to be some sort of a political solution. But a senior American official I - talked to reporters today. One of them admitted that, listen, these talks will be complex, no guarantee of success, and it could take years.

SIEGEL: And while the Afghans are now formally taking the lead on security in Afghanistan, the U.S. is taking the lead in these talks with the Taliban.

BOWMAN: No, you're right, Robert. The Americans are in the lead here and it's because the Taliban view the Karzai government as a bunch of American puppets, but still, the Taliban are expected to talk with the Karzai government.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, just back from a month-long reporting trip to Afghanistan.

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