Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, has said that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghanistan are both on track for Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security by December 2014.
Rasmussen also said on Thursday, during his first visit to the country in over a year, that Afghan troops would be ready to assume a lead role around the Central Asian nation by mid-2013.
"We will stick to the road map and we will gradually hand over by 2014," Rasmussen told Afghan special forces during a visit to their main training base outside Kabul.
At a press conference in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reiterated Rasmussen's statement and said he could call an early presidential election before the next scheduled on in 2014 in order to smooth the handover.
Karzai said that he hopes a transfer of full security to Afghan forces, with the exception of a few areas, be completed by 2013 and that "the transition of full responsibility and withdrawal of foreign forces will be completed by 2014".
After his visit to the base, Rasmussen called Afghan special forces "some of the best in the world" and "the backbone of our strategy for handing over" security responsibility.
The security transition began last year, when NATO handed over responsibility for areas that are home to half the nation's population with coalition forces in those regions now in a support role.
The handover took place in two stages and a third tranche is expected before a NATO summit in Chicago in late May.
Another three phases are planned over the coming year.
Courage and commitment
"Thanks to the courage and commitment of the Afghan forces we will reach out common goal of a secure Afghanistan," Rasmussen said.
"What I have seen makes me confident that we will fulfill our goal of handing over responsibility to the Afghan national security forces."
In tweets from his visit to the special forces base Rasmussen noted the "remarkable skills" of the Afghan special forces, saying "they make a difference for Afghan security".
Afghan security forces now number about 330,000 and are to increase to 352,000 by the end of the year.
They are expected to take over much of the fighting as the US, which provides the bulk of international forces, draws down an additional 23,000 troops to 68,000 by the end of September.
US troop levels reached a high of about 100,000 last year.
Rasmussen said that the international community was committed to training and funding Afghan forces past 2014, but he did not expect that it would be at current levels.
It costs more than $7bn a year to fund the operation of Afghan forces, and the United States alone in the past two years has spent more than $22bn to train and equip them.
Addressing recent talk of cuts to the levels of Afghan national security forces following the withdrawal of international troops, Karzai at a press conference today said ANSF numbers would remain at "current numbers" until 2015 or 2016.
"We are now discussing the long-term size and no decision has been made," Rasmussen said.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|
|Liaquat Ali Khan|