Hamid Karzai names areas to be handed to Afghan forces
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has named seven areas of the country which will pass from control by foreign troops into Afghan hands from July.
They are the relatively peaceful provinces of Kabul, Panjshir and Bamiyan, the cities of Herat and Mazar-e Sharif and the town of Mehtar Lam.
But he also named Lashkar Gah, capital of the volatile Helmand province.
The handover is seen as a critical step in a transition of power before foreign troops end combat operations in 2014.
"The people of Afghanistan don't want that foreigners take responsibility for security any more," President Karzai said.
This is the first step in a long process of withdrawal, which will begin in July when the first tranche of foreign troops is set to leave Afghanistan.
After that, in these areas, the primary role of foreign troops will be to train and equip Afghan security forces, he said. Nato troops will cease to engage in battle.
Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the announcement by President Karzai: "This represents the next stage of Afghanistan's journey, not the destination," he said in a statement.
But he added that "every step of the way will be determined by conditions on the ground".
Speaking at the National Military Academy in the capital, Kabul, President Karzai was keen to stress the entrenched nature of the commitment: "Transition means taking responsibility for both security and development."
President Karzai said that the handover would eventually be extended to individual districts outside of the cities named. The entire province of Kabul, including the capital of the country, would come under Afghan control - but the restive district of Surobi would remain in foreign hands.
"Afghanistan has been burning for 32 years," President Karzai said.
He said that the war against terror should not be fought in Afghanistan's villages but should be taken to the havens and sanctuaries of the insurgents.
But he also urged militants to join peace negotiations.
"I once again urge the armed opposition to stop their attacks and killings and join the peace process," he said.
Residents of the areas set to be handed over have been responding to the announcement.
''I am happy and sad at the the same time. I am not fully satisfied that our troops will be capable of securing the country. I am happy because we'll get our own sovereignty,'' Muhammad Ibrahim Chajirwal from Helmand province told BBC Pashto.
But, Abdul Sattar, a policeman from Herat province, said he was prepared: "I am fully ready. I'll secure the country.''
The BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Helmand, which has seen the worst of the violence over recent years, says that despite rising casualty numbers, the surge of extra American troops and tens of thousands of new Afghan police and soldiers have improved security in a number of areas in the country.
But, our correspondent says, this transition comes with a risk.
Although much improved, the quality of Afghan police and soldiers is patchy - and many people fear they will be unable to withstand a renewed summer offensive from the Taliban, our correspondent says.
Lashkar Gah in the insurgency-wracked province of Helmand has been the focus of a massive coalition operation to rid the area of militants.
British and US troops, supported by other Nato forces, have spearheaded that initiative and experts say there have been improvements in security. But hundreds of soldiers have been killed in these southern areas.
Analysts say that it is only to be expected that these regions will once again be the focus of a lot of activity as the Taliban will be planning to seize them back.
And the conflict remains a bloody one: a record number of civilians and security personnel were killed in Afghanistan last year.
More than 2,700 civilians were killed in 2010 - up 15% on the year before. More than 800 Afghan army soldiers and 711 coalition troops were killed in 2010. More than 1,200 Afghan police died in the line of duty.
A UN report on civilian deaths said that the Taliban were responsible for 75% of all deaths. The proportion killed by Afghan and Nato forces fell, accounting for 16% of civilian deaths.
The UN says the remaining casualties could not be attributed to any one side in the conflict.