KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (CNN) - While President Barack Obama and the military talk about transferring territory to the Afghans next summer, in many places across Afghanistan, largely out of public view, the handover of security, from U.S. to Afghan forces, has already begun on a small scale.
In the last several days, U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan have handed over two small outposts to Afghan forces in the district of Nawa, a place which once saw heavy fighting, a senior ISAF official confirms to CNN.
Across the country, several small outposts have either been turned over to the Afghans, or U.S. troops have pulled out of areas because Afghan control is sufficient the official said. These moves are in advance of the broader turnover of entire provinces, districts and sub-districts to Afghan control that is expected to begin in 2011. However, coming just days before the mid-November NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, these minor moves will give the alliance, and the Obama administration, the ability to announce that transition on some scale has begun.
The larger scale transition is now being intensively planned by US, NATO and Afghan officials according to several ISAF military officials. NATO is now calling it "Inteqal"-it means "transition" in both Dari and Pashtu according to NATO, but going down that road is a bit slower than first expected. Still succeeding at Inteqal will be the road home for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
At next month's NATO summit in Lisbon no announcements are now likely about specific areas of Afghanistan will be first to be turned over or transitioned to Afghan control, according to several officials representing member nations of the alliance. Instead NATO will simply announce that the transition process is underway and re-affirm Afghan security forces are expected to take the lead in conducting security operations across the country by the end of 2014. It's a process that will be very gradual.
In an exclusive interview with CNN last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, said he does expect to be able to recommend to President Obama that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan could begin to be reduced beginning in July 2011, but he declined to say how many troops might be headed home. He said some could also be re-assigned to other jobs inside Afghanistan.
Petraeus told CNN said that in just the last few weeks, he has seen progress against the Taliban momentum in some parts of Afghanistan. including west of Kandahar. "My assessment is that the momentum that the Taliban enjoyed until probably late summer, has broadly been arrested in the country. It doesn't mean, it's been arrested in every location in the country, but it means by and large that is the case, and moreover, more importantly, the ISAF and Afghan forces have achieved momentum in some very important areas."
One Western official confirmed to CNN that earlier this year there were indications that the alliance and the government of Hamid Karzai were ready to agree on the first several provinces that would be part of the transition process. but delays in establishing the final agreements are likely to mean now that no announcements will be made until early 2011.
Several months ago, U.S. military officials were privately indicating some of the first provinces turned over to Afghan control could include Parwan, Panjshir, and Bamiyan where violence has been relatively low.
Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of Regional Command-East, told CNN he also believes those three provinces will be some of the first to be turned over.
The French have also made it clear they would like to leave a district of Kabul province and turn it over to Afghan control.
NATO and the Afghan government have now established a joint process to assess which areas are ready for turnover based on several factors according to the western official who is familiar with the internal debate inside the alliance. A Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board is being set up, provinces will be assessed, and the recommendations made to the Afghan Cabinet for final approval. But the official made clear while Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be the public face of transition–accepting control province by province–NATO will conduct detailed assessments of security, development and the ability of Afghans to govern in each area.
Once a province is turned over to Afghan control, that decision will be "irreversible' the Western official said. The reason: to make sure the Afghan government fully understands the serious implications of taking control and doesn't change its mind which could result in NATO troops having to re-enter an area at a future date.
An assessment of security in each province and the ability of Afghan forces to take over those functions will clearly be the major factor in deciding to begin the turnover process. The actual "metrics" or factors in assessing security will include the number of attacks on civilians, government officials and security forces as well as the freedom of movement by the local population, The Western official emphasized that no one is waiting to meet a standard of "no violence," but rather an assessment that Afghan forces can control and deal with the violence that occurs.
This entire NATO-Afghan process comes as Petraeus, the top commander, is both leading the NATO military assessment and preparing an end of the year U.S. assessment for Obama. Petraeus indicated that some of the work on that December assessment has already begun, but he hopes to have more data over the next several weeks showing a security improvement before he reports to the president.
Petraeus has a highly detailed set of security assessment factors for 83 so-called "key terrain districts, mainly in the south and east where violence has been the heaviest, a senior ISAF official told CNN. While those areas may not be ready for transition, the detailed assessment will give Petraeus a sense of security on an almost village by village basis.
The official emphasized however that "no believes there will be a tipping point before spring." ISAF wants to see if the gains made in recent weeks last through the winter. Petraeus is expressing the view that the recent step up in airstrikes have destroyed so many Taliban safe havens, IED factories and weapon caches that the insurgency may not be able to regroup after this winter.
The official said Petraeus' goal for the December White House review is to be able to tell the president that the current war plan is working and continued progress can be made in 2011.
Petraeus declined, of course, to spell out what he specifically plans to tell Obama. But he offered CNN this assessment. "There is no day in Afghanistan that doesn't have some bad news, the question is how much bad news, relative to how much if you will, how much good news. As a general assessment right now, the trajectory of the rollercoaster in Afghanistan is upward, and that is a change. We intend to maintain the pressure, to increase it."