Afghan troops will be ready to take over security responsibilities from Nato soldiers in Kabul from July, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said on Thursday.
If the proposed handover in the capital occurs, it would mark the first time Afghan forces would have formal security control over any part of Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.
The offer from Mr Karzai was delivered in a meeting in Bucharest with leaders of countries providing troops for the Nato force in Afghanistan, together with, Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission.
Nato officials said the proposal was an Afghan initiative, of which they had been informed earlier, and said it had not come about because of pressure from Nato. They said an evaluation of the proposal by Nato’s military commanders would be necessary before a handover was agreed, and it was not clear whether Mr Karzai was also proposing Afghan responsibility for sensitive sites such as the airport and fuel dumps.
The Afghan National Army is growing, but few units are deemed to be ready yet to operate without assistance from Nato forces.
Officials said the goal is to expand to 70,000 trained soldiers by this summer, and to 80,000 by the time of the next Nato summit in a year’s time.
The meeting, according to people present, did not signify any new strategy for Afghanistan, but included a “firm and long-term commitment” to the Afghan government.
As expected, France on Thursday announced it would send 700 additional combat troops to Afghanistan before the end of the year, in a move that would help relieve immediate pressures on the Nato force fighting the Taliban.
President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that a battalion of French forces would be sent to eastern Afghanistan, a region under US command. France already has 1,430 troops as part of the 47,000 strong Nato contingent.
The move is unpopular in France where 68 per cent of people oppose sending more troops, according to a recent BVA poll, and the Socialist opposition has proposed a vote of censure in parliament.
The French move will allow US troops in the east of Afghanistan to be redeployed to the south. This, in turn, will help to provide 1,000 troops in support of Canadian forces.
Canada has insisted on this extra support as a condition for keeping its 2,500 troops, based in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, in the country.
Stephen Harper, prime minister, said that Canada’s conditions for staying in the country until 2011 had been satisfied.
As well as the extra troops, Canada has said it needed more unmanned aircraft and helicopters to be sent.
Officials said there were no other big commitments of troops to the region, though President George W. Bush told the Nato dinner on Wednesday night that some more US troop “enablers” would be sent to Afghanistan, over and above those so far announced. He did not specify numbers.