KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Lawmakers from Kandahar said Tuesday that Afghan forces are far from ready to assume full security responsibility in the province that was the birthplace of the Taliban, stressing it should be among the last regions where NATO forces hand over control to Afghan counterparts.
Meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed two NATO service members Tuesday in east Afghanistan, the coalition said, providing no further details. The deaths — three days after a suicide truck bombing in Kabul killed five service members and eight civilian contractors — raised to 491 the number of NATO troops killed so far this year in Afghanistan. Flanked by fellow Kandahar parliamentarians, lawmaker Khalid Pashtun pointed to a deadly Taliban attack Monday in the provincial capital as a clear example of why they need NATO forces long after Afghan troops assume sole responsibility in other parts of Afghanistan. In that attack, five people, including three working for the U.N.'s refugee agency, were killed.
The Kandahar legislators fear their province will be on the second list that President Hamid Karzai is expected to announce in the coming weeks as regions where security is to be handed over to Afghan forces.
The concerns come as NATO, which plans to withdraw its combat forces by 2014, recently shifted its thinking on the transition process, with an eye on handing over not only relatively peaceful areas but also some violent regions, where coalition forces are still in a position to provide backup.
"We have too many security problems in Kandahar," Pashtun said, adding that since the start of the U.S.-led invasion, the province has been the epicenter of Afghanistan's security woes. "We believe that transition of security should happen. But considering the ... situation in Kandahar and some other provinces in the south," it should not be on the second or even third transition list.
Instead of a six-stage transition process, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition's top commander in the country, has said the plan is to now achieve the transition in five steps, with the last starting as early as the fall of 2013 instead of later that year or early 2014.
Initially, the idea was to have Afghan security forces take charge in the most peaceful areas first. But Allen said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that Afghan, coalition officials and others recently decided it would be unwise to transfer the most volatile provinces in 2014, when the international force's footprint will be shrinking.
Although Kandahar was not on a recently publicized draft list for next transition sites, which includes all or part of 17 of the country's 34 provinces, Pashtun said there has been talk it would be included on the third list. It should be at "the end of the transition," he said.
"We want the international community to keep its presence in Kandahar," he said, and appealed for an acceleration in NATO's training of Afghan forces, as well as for equipment and weapons to allow them handle the Taliban alone.
Monday's attack on the compound housing U.N. and international aid groups' offices showed that the Taliban remain a potent threat, despite thousands of troops NATO poured into the area.
After smashing an explosives-filled truck into a checkpoint, several insurgents entered the compound and battled with Afghan forces for seven hours before they were killed.
NATO officials and their Afghan counterparts have said that while they are making significant gains across the country, the presence of insurgent safe havens in Pakistan remains a threat to stabilizing and securing Afghanistan.
The coalition, however, touts the gains in the south. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's top military commander said the U.S.-led coalition has reduced the Taliban to carrying out media-attention grabbing attacks "because they can't control the ground, because they've lost influence."
"I would argue that we have arrested the momentum of the Taliban and that we have reversed it, particularly in the south," Stavridis told the AP in Brussels on Monday. "I am cautiously optimistic about the transfer of (security responsibility) in the south."
U.S. and Afghan officials have pressured Islamabad to take stronger action against militants that use Pakistan as a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan, particularly the al-Qaida and Taliban-linked Haqqani network.
Even as NATO and Afghan officials daily announce wins against insurgents, violence continues in the country.
In the eastern province of Wardak, four children from one family were killed Monday when a mine detonated in the field in the provincial capital, Maidan Shah, the governor's office said Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Tarek El-Tablawy and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.