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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Obama arrives at a NATO summit today in Portugal, where a departure will be at the top of the agenda - departure from Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces have fought for nine years now. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says the allies have a timetable in mind.

Mr. ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (Secretary-General, NATO): A gradual transition to lead Afghan responsibility will start at the beginning of 2011. And we hope this gradual transition process will be completed by the end of 2014.

INSKEEP: That's the secretary-general in an interview on today's MORNING EDITION.

To meet the timetable, Afghanistan has to be ready to assume control of its own security three years from now. Afghans would likely take over security piece by piece - one part of the country at a time starting fairly soon, which means that NATO will have to decide which provinces are ready to go first.

One candidate is the northwestern province of Herat. Its capital with the same name is an ancient city near a remote part of the border with Iran. NPR's Rachel Martin traveled there.

(Soundbite of overlapping voices)

RACHEL MARTIN: Daoud Sadeq is visibly upset. The archeologist is standing in the middle of the courtyard in Herat's ancient citadel watching something he considers to be outright blasphemous: Afghan laborers using wooden rollers are moving ancient marble gravestones inside the walls of the citadel.

Mr. DAOUD SADEQ (Archeologist): This is not a graveyard. This is not good. We are not happy.

MARTIN: The ornately carved stones are used to mark the graves of ancient Muslim holy men. But because of increased violence in the area, the local government ordered the stones to be removed from the gravesites they mark and taken to the citadel, the recently restored castle that sits in the middle of the city. And that's where they'll stay for safe keeping.

Daoud Sadeq says the government is to blame for letting the security situation here get this bad.

Mr. SADEQ: It's a shame for them, why they are not securing the area.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Herat, especially the capital city, isn't used to having to deal with the threat of looting and vandalism, let alone suicide attacks and roadside bombs. This part of Afghanistan, near the Iranian border, has been relatively calm.

But in the past year things have changed. Insurgent attacks and crime have spiked. Just last month, suicide bombers attacked the U.N. compound just outside the city, triggering a battle between local Taliban and Afghan national security forces.

Local leaders say the new violence is partly the result of U.S.-led operations in neighboring provinces.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

MARTIN: As U.S. troops go after the Taliban in Kandahar and Helmand, the insurgents travel north on roads like this one that connects the southern provinces to Herat. With the help of NATO troops, Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, have set up a checkpoint here. Lieutenant Abdul Ghani(ph) and his men conduct random vehicle searches, looking for guns or makeshift bombs.

Lieutenant ABDUL GHANI (Afghan National Security Forces): (Through translator) For the moment, insurgents cannot face (unintelligible) coalition forces directly, so they have changed their course of action. Now they are using IEDs and suicides in order to affect coalition and ANSF.

Mr. DAWOOD SABA (Governor, Herat): We are the most secure province even now that I'm talking to you, compared to any other province in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Dawood Saba is the new governor of Herat.

Mr. SABA: But things can happen. You know, we are in a middle of a war, a war with enemies of Afghanistan that cannot see us stand on our feet, that cannot see us having a democratic election.

MARTIN: The governor is a fluent English speaker who holds a Ph.D. in geology and has spent a lot of time in Canada and the U.S. But he grew up here in Herat Province, and now he's got a big job ahead of him: reform a struggling provincial government, get his army and police to stand on their own, and get a handle on the violence.

NATO wants to hand over control of some provinces to the Afghan government by the beginning of next year, and Herat may be on the list. I ask Governor Saba if he's ready for that.

Mr. SABA: Potentially, yes. We have that potential. But really, right now, I'm not ready. Herat is not ready. And how long it takes, I don't know.

MARTIN: No one really knows, but NATO leaders are trying to define criteria for handing control over to the Afghans - things like the security situation, the capability of the Afghan army and police in the province, and the effectiveness of the government there.

Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, says naming provinces that are ready to govern themselves could be dangerous.

Mr. MARK SEDWILL (NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan): We shouldn't be announcing, you know, districts or even towns as transitioning, you know, as it starts, because you immediately paint a bullseye on it and encourage the Taliban to try to come in and try to assassinate the key Afghan officials involved and try and knock it backwards.

MARTIN: That's how fragile all of this is, and NATO officials acknowledge that this transition will depend on conditions on the ground - and will take time.

Here's German Brigadier General Josef Blotz, the spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Brigadier General JOSEF BLOTZ (Spokesman, NATO): I mean, the only true dates we have really got is 2011 as a starting point, if you wish, and 2014 as the end.

MARTIN: That's the window the Obama administration has identified in order to hand over power to the Afghan government and draw down combat troops. But even 2014 isn't really the end. Again, here's General Blotz.

Brig. Gen. BLOTZ: I mean, beyond 2014 there will most probably still be military provided by the international community in this country, but less in a fighting, in a combat role, but more of a mentoring and training nature.

MARTIN: So the bottom line, he says, is this...

Brig. Gen. BLOTZ: We will not be all back home by the end of 2014.

MARTIN: But that's another four years from now. Tacked onto a war that's lasted almost a decade, some Afghans are losing patience.

Mr. AHMAD QURESHI (Journalist): My name is Ahmed Qureshi.

MARTIN: Qureshi runs an Afghan journalists association in Herat. He doesn't want the Taliban back in power, but he longs for strong, consistent leadership.

Mr. QURESHI: Taliban may be wrong in some policies, but these wrong policies they follow, you know, until the end.

MARTIN: In other words, better to be wrong but consistent than to make empty promises based on good intentions. And that, says Qureshi, is how some Afghans look at the international community and the Afghan government.

Mr. QURESHI: I know many people in the city. They're spending their money today and telling that I don't believe in tomorrow; tomorrow maybe there is many bad things happen. They are not optimists about the situation, that things should be stable. When there is no stability, there is nothing.

(Soundbite of overlapping voices and pounding)

MARTIN: And that explains why Daoud Sadeq, the archeologist in Herat, is fighting back tears watching the gravestones rolled into Herat's citadel for safe keeping. He throws his arms up in the air, despondent. A city's life comes from its history, he tells me, so what does it mean for Afghanistan's future when not even the graves of its ancestors are safe?

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can get a look at photos of the citadel in Herat and the gravestones that have been moved there at our website, NPR.org. While you're there, you can find Rachel's earlier reports from Afghanistan.

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