Afghans face tough challenges after NATO transfer

HEIDI VOGT - Associated Press
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In this Tuesday, July 19, 2011 photo, Afghan army guards of honor hold their rifle guns during the transfer of authority from the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan security forces in Mehterlam, Laghman province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. In this city of 100,000, people are scared to wander out at night, the chief judge was recently fired for allegedly collaborating with insurgents, officials accuse each other of corruption and the police force is barely large enough to patrol the streets. In this city of 100,000, people are scared to wander out at night, the chief judge was recently fired for allegedly collaborating with insurgents, officials accuse each other of corruption and the police force is barely large enough to patrol the streets. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

MEHTERLAM, Afghanistan (AP) — In this city of 100,000, people are scared to wander out at night, the chief judge was recently fired for allegedly collaborating with insurgents, officials accuse each other of corruption and the police force is barely large enough to patrol the streets.

As of this week, Afghan forces are in charge of security, replacing the Americans who still keep insurgents from swarming into town through raids in the surrounding valleys of Laghman province.

The tenuous peace in Mehterlam shows the challenges Afghan authorities are facing as the U.S.-led coalition hands over responsibility for more parts of the country. The big question is whether Afghan forces are up to the job.

By the end of next week, seven spots on the Afghan map will officially be under Afghan control — a process that will continue until 2014, when the whole country will be in Afghan hands.

The first round of transition has so far been largely cosmetic, reflecting the worries over the readiness of Afghan forces. It's hard to point to any new responsibilities that Afghans are taking on. NATO troops are not moving out of bases in the transition areas, they'll just officially operate under the oversight of Afghan forces.

Many of the areas transitioning in this first group never had many NATO troops, such as Panjshir and Bamiyan provinces, along with the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west. The capital, Kabul, has nominally been operating under Afghan control for years. And the others — Lashkar Gah in the south and Mehterlam in the east — are cities that are still largely kept safe by the international forces surrounding them.

Of those two, Mehterlam is the one which most concerns international and Afghan officials. While the city is relatively safe compared with much of eastern Afghanistan, it is surrounded by insurgent havens and there's very little local governance or security.

The city's police force has just a few dozen officers. The chief can request officers from other areas if needed, but even the province-wide force has fewer than 1,000 police, according to U.S. military trainers.

"We do not have the numbers of police we need," said city police chief Shah Mahmood. He said he was pushing his officers to their limit and stressed to them on Wednesday — the first full day of Afghan control — that they need to redouble efforts and cover the city with patrols. Others in the city said they were worried about understaffed checkpoints on the edges of town.

The commander of the Afghan army battalion for the area said a quick-reaction force at the army base composed of police officers, army soldiers and intelligence agents that is supposed to be on call for major emergencies is regularly missing all the police officers because the police chief pulls his members for routine work.

"They pull them off for searching a suspicious area or for a patrol. It's like every day is an emergency for them," Gen. Shirzaman Waziri said.

The police, in turn, are angry at the courts, because they say corrupt judges let the people they arrest go free. Provincial police chief Ghulam Aziz Gharani said he's tired of arresting people only to have them back on city streets the next day.

"I don't want to accuse the entire court and say they're all bad, but there are certainly some very bad people among them," Gharani said.

The chief justice was recently fired for ties to insurgent groups after he "released a Taliban and he became a suicide bomber."

Abdul Hanif Manan, the deputy chief justice for Mehterlam said judges are constantly under threat from insurgents and should not be blamed if sometimes they release someone to protect their families.

"These threats are coming every day. And many of these judges live in unsafe areas. And here we are at a court with only three police to guard us," Manan said.

One official, who spoke anonymously to avoid retribution, said the mayor also has ties to insurgent groups, presenting as evidence that the mayor regularly visits insurgent-held areas that should be too dangerous for any government officials. And provincial council member Miratam Tarakhil said the mayor has illegally parceled out valuable land to his cronies.

Mayor Abdul Moqim Niazi laughed off the accusations, saying that he had no link with any militants and that accusations of corruption were just anger from those who did not get land distributions. The mayor's office is in charge of reallocating government land for residents, and Niazi said everything was done within the law.

It is clear, however, that the mayor is not a key member of the transition team. U.S. military officials said that they did not have any regular dealings with him. Ashraf Ghani, the head of the commission overseeing transition, said that while the provincial governor has an excellent reputation, much of the organization underneath him is disorganized or counterproductive.

"In terms of leadership, we have an able governor. The machinery of governance is still not geared yet to enable a governor who truly is able to govern effectively," Ghani said.

The pressure is taken off of these lower-level officials for the time being by active international security forces in the surrounding areas. U.S. forces have slowly moved up the valleys around Mehterlam, pushing into insurgent-held areas and gradually forcing the militants farther back.

"I measure my progress in hundreds of meters a day," said Lt. Col. Matthew Harsha, an Oklahoma National Guardsman whose 1-179 Infantry Battalion operates in Laghman and neighboring provinces. Meanwhile, other forces are conducting quick strikes on insurgent leaders.

"The other agencies that we really don't talk about, they're grabbing them left and right," Harsha said. "I was surprised by how many were going on." He said militant activity in one valley has dropped from about 15 "significant activities" a week to four or five, and attributed that to raids prompting militants to avoid the valley.

It's unclear if Mehterlam would have been able to transition at all without these military operations.

Violence has increased so much in the east this year that it was difficult for the transition team to find a place in the mountainous, volatile region that could be considered for transition.

And even Mehterlam district as it existed six months ago would not have been an option, because of insurgent infiltration in the rural western section of the district. As part of transition, however, the unruly western area was sliced off into a new district called Bad Pakh four months ago, leaving just the city of Mehterlam.

Officials involved in transition say this is beside the point — transition was never going to be easy and Mehterlam was picked because it was important not to leave eastern Afghanistan out of the process. Also, they needed preparation for the harder spots to come.

"The further you go into it, the more you are dealing with contested areas," said Simon Gass, NATO's senior civilian representative. He argued the cities being transitioned should not be seen as threatened islands, but as safe areas that will hopefully expand.

Gov. Iqbal Azizi, 35, says he has a plan to make it happen, including infrastructure projects, development programs and adding more police.

"I can handle it," Azizi said.

But the sticking point may become this issue of governance. Ghani said that while there have been real improvements in the police and the army, the local government still provides very few services in Mehterlam.

"An uneven balance is beginning to develop between the security sector and the developmental sector, and that will have consequences in the future," Ghani said.