The second phase of transition, which was announced on 27 November 2011, is drawing to a close after a long winter, and after a turbulent few weeks that have refocused attention on the fall-out over the ongoing conflict. Many more areas of Afghanistan have witnessed an official transfer of security, while information about the third phase has started to seep out. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini takes a comprehensive look at what has happened in the last few months on transition, and wonders at the decreased attention by media and the public, and at the lack of clarity in some of the transitioned areas.
During these last three months, Afghanistan has experienced massive snowfall…and transition. A number of foreign media picked up the first issue, reported about the plight of displaced Afghans and of the victims of avalanches, and shed some light on social problems that rarely make it into the news. Fewer observers seemed to care about transition, despite it being a central element of the Western strategy for Afghanistan. Perhaps that’s understandable: 2011 had already been the ‘year of transition’, as 2014 will be the ‘year of the withdrawal’. So 2012 must be something else. (It had started promisingly as the ‘year of the peace talks’, now it is still hoped that it will be at least that ‘of the strategic agreement’.)
To find foreigners enthusiastically commenting on the second phase of the transition process – if one chooses to ignore the always too enthusiastic NATO bulletins – one must go back to the end of 2011. In November last year, for example, several European politicians went public with an appealing calculus, according to which areas transferred to the responsibility of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) under theenteqal process already accounted for 50 percent of the Afghan population. The message was: we are half-way to “mission accomplished”.
Actually, the statement, strictly interpreted, may hold true (we are still waiting for a proper Afghan census), given the burgeoning growth of the Kabul population, not least because of internal displacement from other areas, such as Helmand. The 50 percent calculus had illustrious exponents like Simon Gass, the NATO Senior Civilian Representative, who expounded it at a lecture in Whitehall, London, on 16 January (read here); or President Karzai, who mentioned it at the inauguration of the Parliament in Kabul a few days later.
Of course, they were referring to a state of affairs they expect after the second phase of transition has ideally been accomplished, at the end of the current Afghan year 1390 i.e. on 20 March 2012 according to our calendar. One year will then have passed since the first transition was announced, and a lot of things have changed between the first and the second stage. If this second phase of transition failed to draw the same amount of attention the first seven areas did, it had the advantage of involving more provinces with far greater security problems, and, at least in some cases, where a real transition was meant to happen – as opposed to many first phase areas that were already devoid of foreign soldiers.
In Helmand for example, where the transfer of the urban district of Lashkargah signalled a miniature transition last year, three more districts were transitioned. Marja, Nad Ali and Nawa-e Barakzai were largely the focus of the 2010 ‘surge’ offensives, and the recipient of successive governance and development efforts by the NATO command, (including the coined ‘government in a box’ in which administrative teams were flown in to follow up the ‘clear and hold’ phases of the US-led counterinsurgency strategy with a ‘build’ campaign – altogether, with meagre success.) They can by no means be considered inconsequential areas to be handed over to the sole control of the ANSF.
Security in the three districts, unfortunately, seems all but satisfying, notwithstanding the optimistic words that the new head of the Regional Command Southwest on the occasion of his installation last week chose to use:
As I travel around Afghanistan, it is without doubt Helmand enjoys the highest reputation of the province that has made the most progress in the past year […] Children going to school. Farmers going about their business. Government officials going about their business without fear…(read here the whole article)
The situation on the ground is probably better portrayed by the fact that the handover ceremony could not take place in any of the three districts, but, given the concentration of government and ISAF possible targets, took place inside the governor compound in Lashkargah. More significantly, on 18 January an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) struck the vehicle of the chief NDS (National Directorate of Security) for Nad Ali, killing him along with a district council member.
So, without expecting any number of Afghans to move into Helmand in search of solace, let us have a look at the areas of the second enteqal and the chronology of their transition.
On 1 December 2011, a few days only after the announcement of the second enteqal, the process started with the transition of Parwan province, in Kabul’s backyard, to the ANSF. Exception was made for the districts of Shinwari and Siahgerd, which during the last year experienced a significant decline in security after a Taleban cell successfully established itself in the area (see our previous blog here).
Then, for a while, nothing happened – until in the days around the turn of 2011 to 2012 a string of areas were transferred: Samangan and Daikundi provinces on the 29 December, the three mentioned Helmand districts on the 31, Nimruz province on the second day of January and Chaghcharan city, capital of Ghor province, on the fourth.
In early April 2011, an interesting experiment of self-managed enteqal took place in Samangan, long before the official transition had started. In the wake of the tragic attack on the UN in Mazar-e Sharif, when seven UN workers were lynched by a mob (see our blog here), the mainly Finnish troops of the local PRT quietly relocated to Mazar-e Sharif, abandoning their installations near Aibak after only minor protests and gatherings by locals had taken place (read here).
Cold must have been a primary feature of the transition in provinces like Daikundi or Ghor: Many parts of Daikundi register an average 2.5 meter of snowfall in winter, and according to its governor Ali Qorban Uruzgani: ‘it seems that we have to govern over Siberia!’. When AAN heard him last year he was not only complaining about the weather, but also that no PRT had ever been sent there, linking its absence to the scarcity of funds and of donors’ attention for his province. As for Ghor, there at least a real ISAF presence has existed, in the form of the tiny Lithuanian PRT in the district of Chaghcharan. Its transition would probably mean little for most of the vast, and even by Afghan standards under-serviced province, affected by commanders’ feuds and outright banditry far more than by insurgents.
The severe winter has to a large extent favoured the general lack of targeting by insurgents of the transition areas. This is especially true for the North where the harsh climatic conditions and the presence of non-local fighters among the insurgents normally cause a reduction in numbers and activities during the cold season. The Taleban ‘commuters’ withdraw to their home areas in southern Afghanistan or to Pakistan in order to re-establish contact with the leadership, or just to rest in view of a new fighting season. Only in Badghis, where the insurgents have a more established presence with essentially local cadres, was there possibly some sort of reaction to the enteqal, when a particularly prolonged attack on an ANP checkpoint in Ab Kamari district the day following the transition of the district (31 January, along with the provincial capital Qala-ye Naw) resulted in several insurgent casualties.
In Nimruz, another province without a PRT, but in the extremely hot Southwest of the country at the border with Iran, monthly mentoring visits to the Afghan army based in the provincial capital Zaranj by the Marines Expeditionary Force coming in from Lashkar Gah continue (read about it here). Training and mentoring the ANSF is supposed to be core to the post-2014 (and post-ISAF) mission of NATO anyway, but that has been also the only task they carried out in Zaranj. Nimruz had a small FOB, located, more strategically for NATO concerns, in Dilaram, on the Kandahar-Herat section of the ring road. Zaranj, is known more as a hotspot for smuggling (especially of drugs – see our previous blog here) than of insurgency, but it has still had numerous instances of killings of policemen inside the city and in its immediate surrounds that have been difficult to link simply to turf wars between rival smuggler networks. Insurgents who have a known (if not particularly strong) presence in some areas of Nimruz, may have been interested in disrupting security by means of such random assassinations in areas where they currently cannot organise more ambitious operations. But this never attracted particular NATO attention.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020