The draw-down begins.
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[.]"
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.