A key part of Britain's exit strategy from Afghanistan – Gordon Brown's pledge that Hamid Karzai's government will start taking charge of security by the end of the year – is almost certain to go unfulfilled.
Nato and British military officials have urged that domestic political considerations should not be used to influence strategy in Afghanistan at a crucial time in the conflict and that the transfer of security should begin only when conditions are judged to be right.
However, with the most pressing foreign policy issue in the impending elections being the Afghanistan conflict, and given the losses being incurred by British troops there, Mr Brown has declared that UK forces could start to withdraw, with areas being handed over to the Afghans.
He declared last year: "I believe this can begin next year in a number of districts including one or two in Helmand province itself. We need to be transferring at least five provinces by the end of 2010."
At the London conference on Afghanistan a few months ago, the Prime Minister stressed that "transferring, district by district, to full Afghan control" should start in 2010.
Downing Street officials have talked about the handover process beginning in up to five provinces in the north and west of the country.
Senior figures in the Coalition say they are "puzzled" by the deadlines being set by Mr Brown. The first Nato meeting to decide which districts to hand over to the Afghan government will now not take place until the end of the year and the alliance will demand that a specific framework is in place before the transfer of security begins.
Speaking yesterday at a Nato foreign ministers' meeting in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, where the discussion on that handover plan begins with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in attendance, the alliance's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, acknowledged that Afghans taking over security was "the light at the end of the tunnel".
However, he stressed: "We must be absolutely clear that this is conditions based and not calendar driven...
"It is our strenuous contention to hand over control to Afghans but we neither can nor will until we are a hundred per cent sure that Afghan security forces are capable of taking that responsibility."
One of the problems being faced by Nato's Isaf (International Security and Assistance Force) in Afghanistan is a shortage of up to 450 trainers. Mr Rasmussen said yesterday that a number of countries, including Canada, have made offers of personnel and insisted that "progress was being made".
The chief Nato spokesman, James Appathurai, said: "We can't be in a situation where we transition for reasons of political pressure and then find that it's not sustainable. We want to make sure that transition takes place not in a piecemeal fashion, not because country A or country B that has operations in a particular area decides it's time, but because the conditions have been established and agreed. There needs to be progress this year. But the answer is not that we pack up and go home; our security interests do not permit that."
Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, has also cautioned recently against setting a timetable for handover. "I think I would rather have those on the ground in Afghanistan make that judgment call about when a province or district was ready to be handed over, rather than a specific date... It would be counter-productive to transfer that responsibility before the Afghans were ready and had the capacity to sustain the security when we turn it over."
A senior British military officer, with extensive experience of operations in Afghanistan, concurred: "We would all like the Afghans to take over whenever practicable and progress is being made. But setting deadlines does not help and frankly we do not think a meaningful handover can take place in a short timespan.
There is no point in pushing the Afghans to do things before they are fully ready just for domestic consumption. Good progress is being made in training the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) but rushing this would be a mistake."
Afghan security forces are now "partnering" Nato troops rather than being "mentored" by them in the planning process for military missions. The next major operation being planned is to "clear" areas outside Kandahar which have been taken over by a resurgent Taliban. Afghan troops say they will take over the task of defence but many are worried that Western powers will churn out numbers to reach targeted totals and use that as an excuse to leave.
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