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It has been a landmark week in Afghanistan, as NATO forces will be handing security responsibility for seven relatively peaceful areas over to the government of President Hamid Karzai. The handovers mark the first major step in a process that is expected to be completed by 2014, when the last American combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.
Turning these areas over to the Afghan government has coincided with the departure of General David Petraeus, who most analysts say did the best that could be expected given the enormous challenges facing the military when he took command last year. He leaves with the country in better shape than when he arrived as far as battling the Taliban insurgency goes, but far from bequeathing a stable security situation to his successor, General John Allen.
As if to highlight the enormous security problems that still face the Afghan army and police during the handover, two mortars were fired near the spot where the transition ceremony in Mehtarlam, the provincial capital of Lagham, was taking place. NATO and Afghanistan officials see Lagham as a litmus test for the Afghan army and police and their capabilities in being able to handle security responsibilities.
Those capabilities are very much in question. Indeed, a shortage of trained personnel and equipment is hampering the development of the police into an effective force for law and order. And corruption in the courts is sapping the confidence of ordinary Afghans in the ability of the government to administer justice.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is the Afghan government itself and the performance of its mercurial president. The shock of losing his half-brother and close adviser, Ahmed Wali Karzai, last week was compounded when another close confidant, Jan Mohammed Khan, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul on Monday. Some in Afghanistan are questioning whether Karzai’s government can survive once the handover is complete. One member of parliament told the Guardian newspaper, “These killings show the weakness of failure of Karzai’s politics. The situation is crisis. Karzai has lost control of the country.”
In fact, Karzai is scrambling to fill the void of his half-brother’s death, casting about for someone who can fill the hole in his leadership circle in Kandahar province, the most crucial area of the country. According to the Washington Post, several candidates are being considered, including Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of eastern Nangahar province, who would replace the current governor of Kandahar. But tribal jealousies — Shirzai is of a different tribe than Karzai — might make that choice problematic.
Regardless, the dual blow of losing two of his closest advisers has jolted Karzai’s government and knocked it off-balance at an important juncture. The security handovers in Helmand province (Lashkar Gah), Bamiyan province in central Afghanistan, and Lagham province (Mihtarlam) are being seen as a test case for the government’s ability to keep the peace and build trust with citizens in order to extend the influence of the Karzai administration into the provinces. At the handover ceremony in Mihtarlam, British General James Bucknall, deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force, said, “There will be plenty of challenges ahead, security and otherwise, as Mihtarlam progresses through transition over the coming months[.]”
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