KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's NATO-trained military is ready to take responsibility for fighting Taliban insurgents and securing key parts of the country that will be the first to transition as the U.S. begins a troop drawdown in July, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday.
Many Afghans are eager to see an American departure nearly 10 years after U.S. forces invaded to oust al-Qaida's Taliban hosts from power, and President Barack Obama is expected to announce plans later Wednesday to bring roughly 10,000 American troops home in less than a year.
But the drawdown, before a full pullout by 2014, carries enormous risks for a U.S.-allied government still beset by attacks from Taliban and other insurgents.
"There will be some battles, there will be suicide attacks, and bomb attacks," said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said of the coming transition period. "But we in the Afghan forces are prepared to replace the foreign forces and I'm confident the army has enough capacity and ability."
About 100,000 U.S. troops are in the country, three times as many as when Obama took office. In a prime-time address from the White House, Obama is likely to outline a phased withdrawal that will bring 5,000 troops home this summer and an additional 5,000 by winter or spring 2012, according to a senior U.S. defense official As the U.S. drawdown nears, there's more pressure on the Afghan government to find a mediated peace with the Taliban to the nearly decade-long war.
Speaking in Kabul on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed any talks with the Taliban must be an "Afghan-led process," even as the U.S. has had contacts with Taliban emissaries as well.
"Contacts do take place," Hague said. "The United Kingdom will assist in that when it can."
Hague appeared at a news conference with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The UAE has been mentioned as a possible location to conduct negotiations with the Taliban, though Al-Nahyan declined to discuss it Wednesday.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul also cautioned against reading too much into the talks. The Taliban has said publicly there will be no negotiations until foreign troops leave Afghanistan
"Contact doesn't mean negotiation," Rasoul said.
The Afghan army will take over responsibility for securing five provincial capitals and two provinces by July 20.
Azimi said Afghan officials were confident about the transition and noted that the Taliban has been weakened and driven from bases in Kandahar, the southern city where it was born in the early 1990s, and along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan.
The country's army will have 171,600 troops by October and an arsenal of NATO weapons, Azimi said.
The Taliban, however, remains a formidable enemy. It began its yearly spring offensive at the end of April.
The month that followed was the deadliest for Afghan civilians since the United Nations started tracking deaths in 2007, according to a report released earlier this month. Insurgents were to blame for the vast majority of the 368 civilians killed in May, the report said.
As they try to undermine confidence in the Afghan government, the insurgents have stepped up suicide attacks and bombings that are more likely to affect civilians.
Afghanistan also faces economic challenges. Poverty and illiteracy are widespread and international aid efforts must overcome corruption as well as the security risks involved in trying to carry out development projects in a country still at war.
Afghan security forces have grown rapidly. NATO officials say the armed force will allow foreign militaries to remove most of their troops and rely upon Afghans to protect the government and defeat the Taliban. Many American officials acknowledge that the Taliban could continue to be a problem for the Afghan government well after 2014, Obama's promised deadline for the withdrawal of all combat troops.
The provincial capitals identified for transition are Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, plus capitals from provinces in the west, east and north and most of Kabul, the nation's capital. The largely peaceful northern provinces of Bamyan and Panjshir will also start to transition to Afghan control.
Azimi also delivered a stern warning to neighboring Pakistan, demanding it put a stop to a four-day spate of cross-border shelling into the eastern province of Kunar, presumably targeting Taliban fighters involved in attacks in Pakistan. Azimi said 150 mortar shells have been fired into the Sakawai district, but he did not offer precise numbers of casualties.
The Afghan government is trying to find a diplomatic solution for the cross-border violence, Azimi said.
Fighting also continued Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, where an insurgent attack killed an international coalition service member. NATO released no other details.
Insurgents raided a checkpoint in the Qarabag district of Ghazni province in south Afghanistan, setting off a gunbattle that killed six Afghan policemen, said Sayed Amir Shah, provincial director of intelligence.
And NATO said a combined U.S. and Afghan force killed eight insurgents in Nawzad district in the southern province of Helmand on Monday night. The troops fired in self-defense, a NATO statement said.
"The target is a senior Taliban leader who has recently been appointed the Taliban deputy governor of Nawzad district and has direct communication with Taliban provincial leadership," NATO said.
Accounts of how many people were killed varied.
A statement from the office of Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal said the joint force conducted the Nawzad raid while armed Taliban militants were attending the funeral of two fellow insurgents. A Taliban commander named Mullah Noor Mohammad and four other insurgents were killed in the raid, according to the provincial governor's office.
Two Nawzad residents who say they witnessed the raid said as many as two dozen people were killed.
Khan reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.