Afghanistan's test case: NATO handover in Laghman Province

US policymakers will watch Afghanistan's ability to maintain stability in Laghman Province as a litmus test for its forces' capabilities in the rest of the country.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Ashraf Ghani, head of the Transition Commission raises Afghanistan's flag during the transfer of authority in Mehterlam, Laghman province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on July 19.

After a decade of war in Afghanistan, international forces began handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces in seven areas across the country this week, marking the first major step toward ending NATO-led combat missions here by 2014.

Although most of the seven areas that Afghan forces will assume responsibility for have been some of the most peaceful regions in the country, Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, and Mihtarlam, the capital of Laghman Province, are likely to be a litmus test for the path forward.

Throughout the course of the war, fighting in Helmand has cost the lives of more international soldiers than any other province in the country, but in the capital and central part of the province the situation appears to have stabilized. Meanwhile, the situation in the east has deteriorated. While Laghman was not the most violent province in the eastern region, it is a gateway to Kabul and stopping the spread of violence there is critical.

Whether Afghan forces are capable of maintaining security gains in Lashkar Gah and protecting Mihtarlam from growing instability will provide policymakers with critical information to determine the pace of the drawdown.

The other areas left to transition in this first round include Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Panjshir, and all of Kabul Province, except the Sarobi district. Mihtarlam became the second area to transfer on Tuesday, after Bamiyan on Sunday. The first round of transitions is slated to be completed by the end of next week.

“There will be plenty of challenges ahead, security and otherwise, as Mihtarlam progresses through transition over the coming months; and plenty of challenges as Afghanistan as a whole, this great country, moves gradually and inexorably toward full transfer of security responsibility by the end of 2014,” said British Gen. James Bucknall, deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force, at the transfer ceremony in Mihtarlam.

Afghans concerned about the transition

There was mixed reaction about Afghan forces taking over security for the capital city among the residents of Laghman. As in all areas transitioning, foreign forces will remain in the area to assist, but they will fall under the authority of Afghan officials.

Several days ago, Hanifa Safi, the head of Women’s Affairs for Laghman, received a report that the Taliban was planning to kidnap her. In light of the recent wave of targeted attacks against high-level Afghan officials, Ms. Safi took the news seriously.

“There will be more assassinations of important people, and the Taliban will try to stop women from working,” Safi says. After the transition, she worries about the Taliban gaining power. “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.”

Throughout Laghman, tribal elders say they have been working to create an environment that is not permissive to insurgents by encouraging residents not to allow outsiders in their area. Among some locals there is optimism that all of the pieces are in place for improvement in their area, but after years of war there is still apprehension.

“It’s a good decision because it’s our own soil and we should be responsible for it,” says Haji Ashuqullah, a resident of Mihtarlam. “It’s the same as when the Russians were here. People weren’t happy with them, but when they left, the fighting among Afghans started here and all over the country. This looks like the same thing and we are worried that the same thing will happen again.”

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