BRUSSELS – NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan offered a cautiously optimistic assessment of the transition of security duties to Afghan forces during a briefing with alliance representatives on Wednesday, a U.S. official said.
Gen. David Petraeus and his civilian couterpart, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, addressed the alliance a day before the first-ever joint conference of foreign and defense ministers from NATO’s 28 states, including top U.S. officials.
The briefing focused on plans to start handing over security duties to the Afghan forces, which are due to start next year.
“There are areas of the country that are reasonably secure already, and Afghan security forces are capable of handling security already,” Sedwill told reporters after the session.
He noted, however, that the precise timing will depend upon conditions on the ground, and that the transfer will not start everywhere in 2011. “In some areas that are contested it will not start for a year or 18 months later,” he said.
The process should be completed by 2014, although some allied troops – including special forces and trainers – will remain in Afghanistan after that date, Sedwill said.
This dovetails with the stories I noted yesterday; Max Boot notes the same reports today, along with a few others that likewise give “a sense that the war may be moving, however haltingly and slowly, in the right direction.” But once again, there’s the question of how attached Obama is to his 2011 deadline. What happens if Petraeus thinks the conditions on the ground demand that the drawdown be slowed down significantly? You will notice that the wiggle room that the General and the Ambassador are establishing between 2011 and 2014 straddles an election year, which can cut either way. As a matter of pure politics, would Obama prefer to alienate Petraeus (who might well resign if he feels his mission is being made impossible), or the dovish Democratic base? Without knowing how the political winds will shift over the next two years, that’s impossible to predict.