By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General.
Afghans are celebrating Nowruz, the Afghan New Year. Around the world, New Year is a time to look forward. And I am confident that this year the Afghan people really do have reason to be optimistic about their future.
For this also marks the beginning of a process of transition, which will enable the Afghan people to take the lead for security in their country.
In his New Year address, President Karzai announced which districts and provinces are ready to begin this process Getting to this point has not been easy. That we have arrived here at all is down to the enormous courage and determination of the Afghan and International security forces, and the Afghan people themselves.
The Afghan Security Forces are fighting shoulder to shoulder with us in more and more operations. In some, they represent over half the forces. And their confidence and ability is growing all the time. Together we are making hard-won gains. Together we are putting pressure on the Taliban across the country, and taking away many of the safe havens that they relied upon. Today, insurgents control far less territory than they did a year ago.
We have made it our priority to build up the Afghan Security Forces. One-sixth of the world’s nations are taking part in our mission to train, mentor and educate Afghan security forces. This is a clear demonstration of the international community’s continued commitment to Afghanistan.
These efforts are worth it, because our training mission is a remarkable success. In 2010, Afghan forces grew by over 70,000 -- the biggest growth in the country’s history. But this is about quality, not just quantity. We have tripled leadership courses and rolled out a mandatory literacy programme for all new recruits, empowering them with the ability to read and write. A skill which the Taliban denied them as children.
It is largely a result of the progress we have made in developing the Afghan Security Forces that they are now ready to begin assuming the lead role for their own security. Our goal is that by the end of 2014 we will have completed the process of transition to Afghan security lead.
This is the next stage of Afghanistan’s journey, not the destination. And every step of the way will be determined by conditions on the ground.
Each time we move towards transition in a particular area, we will assess jointly with our Afghan partners the capability of the Afghan forces; the local security situation; and the capacity of the local governor to support those security efforts.
Once an area has been handed over, our forces will do less and the Afghans will do more. Afghans will take the lead, while our role will gradually change. But let me be very clear: we are not heading for the exit. NATO has concluded an Enduring Partnership with Afghanistan that goes well beyond 2014. And our forces will still be required to train more recruits, and to mentor the Afghans as they find their feet.
I understand that as this transition gets underway, political leaders are facing pressure to bring their troops home for good. No one wants our forces to be in combat a day longer than necessary. But it is vital that we maintain solidarity and continuity in order to ensure that transition is irreversible. And in particular, that we gradually transfer our troops from combat roles to training.
We have already turned a corner in Afghanistan. Within the ISAF mission, our approach remains: in-together, out together. We are committed not to leave any security vacuum that could breed extremism. We look forward to this new Afghan year with confidence and hope.