U.S.-Led Forces May Be in Western Afghanistan for Up To 3 More Years, NATO Military Officials Say

By Edwin Mora | October 8, 2010 | 4:01 AM EDT

Map of Afghanistan showing Herat province. Made by User:Golbez, based on original map by Morwen on en.wikipedia.

(CNSNews.com) - A NATO deputy in western Afghanistan said it would not be possible to transition certain districts from NATO control to Afghan control “within two years” but a transition in some areas is “imminent.”  Also, the deputy’s commander said it may take “two or three years” before Afghan security forces can operate effectively on their own, allowing NATO troops to withdraw.

The Obama administration has said that U.S. forces, which comprise the bulk of NATO forces in Afghanistan, will start to drawdown from that country in July 2011, nine months from now.

“Roughly speaking, I can say there are some districts in Herat province that they would be able to start transitioning in the next six-to-nine months, maybe, and then of course for the rest we'll need to wait until 12 to 24 months,” NATO Col. Vitro Caracas, an Italian and the deputy in charge of stability operations under Regional Command (RC) West in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon on a Sept. 30 teleconference call.

“But, of course, there are also other areas that we don't foresee a transition being possible within a two-year period,” he said.

“I think that, for example, in the district of Herat, Herat City, the transition could begin also tomorrow, as I stated before,” said Col. Caracas.  “Of course, the situation is not the same in the other provinces and the other cities. It takes more time. But I would like to underline that Herat is ready to begin the transition.”

Herat province (red) in Afghanistan

There are 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

As far as how many troops NATO could withdraw as a result of transitioning some districts over to local forces, Caracas said, “it will be no more than a company.”

According to the U.S. Army, a military company consists of 62 to 190 soldiers. Currently, there are about 98,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Italian Brig. Gen. Claudio Berto, commanding general for U.S.-led NATO forces in western Afghanistan, briefed Pentagon reporters along with Caracas on the conference call.

Regarding when U.S.-led NATO forces would be able to pull out of western Afghanistan, Berto said, “It depends on how long that it takes to have effective ANSF forces. I think that it is a matter of years. It can start with a transition also tomorrow, but to empower the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] it takes more time, probably two or three years. It depends on the effort and on the materials, on the training that we are able to produce and to give to them.”

Berto further said that the security conditions in western Afghanistan vary from region to region, with most of the enemy violence being concentrated in the north.

Nevertheless, Berto said the Taliban does not control any of the Afghan districts under his command. But they do have an influence in the less-populated provinces, such as Ghowr, which borders the southern Helmand province, where most of the fighting has taken place during the war, which started in October 2001.  

NATO’s RC-West covers the Afghan province of Herat, where most of the 3.5 million inhabitants of that area live, as well as Badghis, Farah, and Ghowr provinces, said Berto.

NATO’s RC-West forces stand at about 7,000 troops, which includes approximately 2,000 Americans, Berto said. He added that American soldiers there are mainly charged with fighting insurgents rather than with training Afghan forces. 

International forces under the RC-West command are partnering with about 11,800 members of the Afghan forces, the general said.

Throughout the war in Afghanistan, most of the fighting has been concentrated in the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – more U.S. soldiers have died there than in any other area.

Back on Aug. 24, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, said, “I certainly believe some American unit somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011; I do not think they will be Marines. Helmand and Kandahar, adjacent, are the birthplace of the Taliban.

“I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us,” said Conway.

In December 2009, President Barack Obama said that dependent upon ground conditions, in July 2011 U.S. troops will start withdrawing from Afghanistan and gradually start to transition to ANSF personnel.

NATO’s training mission of the Afghan security forces has encountered some serious challenges, according to military officials, including corruption, drug use, and illiteracy among the Afghan troops.