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Smooth transition will be key to bringing troops home from Afghanistan

By Barbara Starr, CNN
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General David Petraeus on politics
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Troops could begin to be reduced by July 2011, Gen. David Petraeus says
  • Progress is being made in the country, he says
  • A process is in place to assess which provinces will be first turned over to Afghan control
  • "The trajectory of the roller coaster in Afghanistan is upward," he says
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Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- They call it "Inteqal" -- it means "transition" in both Dari and Pashtu, according to NATO -- but going down that road is a bit slower than first expected. Still, succeeding at Inteqal will be the road home for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

At next month's NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, no announcements are likely about which specific areas of Afghanistan will be the first to be transitioned to Afghan control, according to several officials representing member nations of the alliance.

Instead, NATO will simply announce that the transition process is under way and reaffirm that Afghan security forces are expected to take the lead in conducting security operations across the country by the end of 2014. It's a process that will be very gradual.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, said he expects to be able to recommend to President Barack Obama that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan could begin to be reduced in July 2011, but he declined to say how many troops might be headed home, adding that some could be reassigned to other jobs inside Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan has "broadly been arrested" in some locations in recent weeks, he said.

"My assessment is that the momentum that the Taliban enjoyed until probably late summer, has broadly been arrested in the country," Petraeus said. "It doesn't mean it's been arrested in every location in the country, but it means by and large that is the case, and moreover, more importantly, the ISAF and Afghan forces have achieved momentum in some very important areas."

One Western official confirmed to CNN that there were indications earlier this year that the alliance and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai were ready to agree on the first provinces that would be part of the transition process, but delays in finalizing the deals are likely to mean now that no announcements will be made until early 2011.

Several months ago, U.S. military officials were privately indicating that some of the first to be turned over could include Parwan, Panjshir and Bamiyan, where violence has been relatively low. The French have also made it clear they would like to leave a district of Kabul province and turn it over to Afghan control.

NATO and the Afghan government have now established a joint process to assess which areas are ready for turnover based on several factors, according to the Western official who is familiar with the internal debate inside the alliance. A Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board is being set up, then provinces will be assessed and recommendations will be made to the Afghan Cabinet for final approval.

But the official made clear that while Karzai will be the public face of transition -- accepting control province by province--NATO will conduct detailed assessments of security, development and the ability of Afghans to govern in each area.

Once a province is turned over to Afghan control, that decision will be "irreversible," the official said. The reason: to make sure the Afghan government fully understands the serious implications of taking control and doesn't change its mind, which could result in NATO troops having to re-enter an area at a future date.

An assessment of security in each province and the ability of Afghan forces to take over those functions will clearly be the major factor in deciding to begin the turnover process. The actual factors in assessing security will include the number of attacks on civilians, government officials and security forces, as well as the freedom of movement by the local population.

The Western official emphasized that no one is waiting to meet a standard of "no violence," but rather an assessment that Afghan forces can control and deal with violence that occurs.

This entire NATO-Afghan process comes as Petraeus is both leading the NATO military assessment and preparing an end of the year U.S. assessment for Obama.

Petraeus has a highly detailed set of security assessment factors for 83 so-called "key terrain districts" mainly in the south and east where violence has been the heaviest, a senior ISAF official told CNN. While those areas may not be ready for transition, the detailed assessment will give Petraeus a sense of security on an almost village-by-village basis.

The official emphasized, however, that "no one believes there will be a tipping point before spring." ISAF wants to see if the gains made in recent weeks last through the winter. Petraeus is expressing the view that the recent increase in airstrikes has destroyed many Taliban safehavens, IED factories and weapon caches that the insurgency may not be able to regroup after this winter.

The official said Petraeus' goal for the December White House review is to be able to tell the president that the current war plan is working and continued progress can be made in 2011.

Petraeus declined to spell out what he specifically plans to tell Obama. But he offered CNN this assessment: "There is no day in Afghanistan that doesn't have some bad news. The question is how much bad news, relative to how much ... good news [is received]. As a general assessment right now, the trajectory of the roller coaster in Afghanistan is upward, and that is a change. We intend to maintain the pressure, to increase it."

 
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