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And the biggest of those challenges will be finding out just how well the newly-trained Afghanistan police force performs under pressure. NATO soldiers will still be stationed nearby, but they will take their orders from the Afghanistan security services. The police force has been built from scratch, trained by NATO, but suffers from both a shortage of personnel and lack of equipment.
ABC News spent 6 days prior to the handover roaming the city of Mihtarlam talking to residents and officials. What the news outlet discovered is disturbing. There were only a “few dozen” officers patrolling a city of 100,000, which is “like asking the New Orleans Police Department to maintain security with fewer than 100 cops.”
Police officials do not patrol with armored trucks, despite the presence of IEDs, nor do they have bulletproof vests. In fact, the police do not patrol at all, according to ABC. US mentors have been urging the police to get out into the neighborhoods, but instead, the officers “would set up checkpoints and respond to emergencies, but they were not familiarizing themselves with the city they now officially protect.”
And there are troubling signs that citizens are not very accepting of their new security shield. When police officers caught a man trying to plant an IED, they chased him down only to have angry villagers confront them and drive them back. “There’s no intimidation factor,” says a special forces soldier who mentors the Afghan security forces. “They walk down the street, they have no vests, no helmets, and nobody is scared of them.” A senior aide to President Karzai told ABC that it might take 10 years before cities have functioning police departments. “The Taliban will continue to use suicide attackers and IEDs,” says the precinct captain. He added, “But if we receive the right equipment and more men, we will be ok.”
That appears, at least at this point in the handover, to be a dubious proposition.
It doesn’t help police-citizen relations that the justice system in the country is seen as hopelessly corrupt. The son of a Taliban commander was let go after the father threatened — or bought — his son’s freedom. Even when police make arrests, there’s no guarantee that the accused will ever be brought to trial. This breeds cynicism among residents who see the corruption as a sign that the government won’t last beyond the point where most foreign forces leave the country in 2014. The head of Women’s Affairs in Lagham, Hanifa Safi, who has been targeted by the Taliban for assassination, is not confident that security can be maintained. “When the foreigners go they are putting us in the mouth of a lion. The Taliban has grown into a giant, and I think the foreigners should just keep killing them until they’re finished,” she said.
That is not going to happen. And given the immense toil that has been invested into the enterprise at this juncture, anemic success raises serious doubts over whether such an outcome is possible at all. With the departure of General Petraeus and the beginning of a significant draw-down of American combat strength, General Allen will have all that he can handle in trying to maintain the hard-won gains made by the brilliant performance of the military over the last year. But a sobering report from the UN stated that the first six months of this year have seen the heaviest casualties in Afghanistan since 2001. And while the military was concentrating its patrols and counterinsurgency strategy in the south, the Taliban increased attacks in the north and east.
The brazen attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul last month that killed 11 highlights this change of tactics by the Taliban. Targeted assassinations designed to weaken the government, and high-profile attacks like the hit on the Intercontinental and the mortar attack at the handover ceremony are a stark indication of just how strong the Taliban continues to show itself, and how difficult the job ahead is going to be in protecting the Afghan government from collapse.
The security handover is good news. What the Afghans do with it will tell the tale of whether they can maintain whatever sense of peace and security that was purchased for them by the blood of American soldiers and their NATO allies.
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