KABUL // Nato will hand over several provinces to the Afghan authorities in the first half of next year, the alliance's civilian representative in the country said today.
Mark Sedwill told reporters in Kabul that a key Nato conference starting on Friday was likely to see leaders of the 28-member bloc back a plan for the full transfer of powers to the Afghan government in four years' time.
"What I expect they will be saying is that the transition process will begin in the first half of 2011 and the Afghans will take the lead countrywide by the end of 2014," he said.
Mr Sedwill said an assessment had been submitted about which areas of the war-torn country could start the process in the next six months to two years but dismissed as "speculative" recent media reports on specific areas.
He said the areas would not be disclosed at the conference and dismissed as "speculative" recent reports about a map and a timetable drawn up for the transfer of responsibilities.
But he added: "We will start with several provinces. In some cases it will be the whole province, in other cases it will start at district or below district, municipality or town level and work its way up."
The US president, Barack Obama, indicated last year that troops could begin withdrawing from July 2011, as he announced a surge of tens of thousands of soldiers to quell the deadly Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan.
But his administration has recently rowed back, amid concern that the date has been interpreted as a full withdrawal of all foreign forces and that conditions on the ground are not yet favourable for a drawdown of troops.
The Afghan president Hamid Karzai's aim of a complete handover by the end of 2014 is now seen as more realistic.
Mr Sedwill also said that 2014 was a goal, not a deadline, and cautioned that foreign forces could stay in Afghanistan beyond that date, only in a different capacity, supporting Afghan forces with training and logistical help.