Second part of the retrospective look at the last three months’ transitions which took in many Afghan provinces. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini briefly comments on each of these and on some characteristics of the overall process.
The second phase of transition continued on 11 January 2012 with a ceremony in the Wardak provincial capital of Maidan Shahr. The city (itself targeted by insurgent activity), the equally troublesome Jalrez and the more relaxed Behsud (Hessa-e Awwal) were the districts included in this batch.
The next day it was the turn of troublesome Ghazni city, centre of the namesake and even more troublesome province where most of the Pashtun-populated southern districts had been out of government control for long periods. The PRT remains in the provincial capital, although arguably the activities of its Polish contingent in the urban area will be reduced. Ghazni district is a contested ground in itself, with the insurgents actively carrying out targeted assassinations even inside the city and more ambitious attacks in the countryside around it. Also, the adjacent districts of Deh Yak and Zana Khan host consistent insurgent presence, and are consequently among the most targeted by ANSF and ISAF operations. Furthermore, in the weeks following the transition, NATO troops played a major role in the re-capture of Ghazni’s Nawa district, which had been held for many years by insurgents (read here). Operations in the insurgency-ridden southern districts of the province, may well be meant to decrease insurgent pressure on the provincial capital at the time of transition.
On 16 January most of the vast Herat province was formally handed over to the ANSF, except the districts of Shindand, Obe and Chisht-e Sharif – the last two affected by a fresh outbreak of violence in October 2011, just as decisions over the areas to be transitioned were being made. One development in stark contrast with what is (not) happening in other transitioned areas, is that the local PRT is actually being moved outside the city centre, back to the ISAF base in Gozara district where it once was. The process, which will be completed by June, is to the satisfaction of many Heratis who have been asking its removal after a Taleban attack in June 2011 took its toll on the lives of the local civilians (see our previous blog here).
The major urban hub in the eastern region, Jalalabad, and four more districts of Nangrahar (Behsud, Kama, Shewa and Sorkhrud) transitioned on 26 January, followed by Qarghayi in Laghman the day after that. If Jalalabad, Qarghayi were being run by ANSF along with Sarobi district of Kabul province, (also part of the second transition schedule although not yet transferred) it means they would have overall responsibility for the entire length of the key Kabul-Jalalabad highway. This does not mean that we travellers will not get stuck by huge convoys of French armoured Renault vehicles anymore, but it is remarkable because the road has been a primary target of insurgents and its control represents one of the government’s major priorities. However, ANSF checkpoints have already been dotting the road and ISAF assistance has been required only at critical stages. Furthermore, on 3-4 December 2011 NATO troops conducted an extensive operation to clean the Tor Ghar, the ridge running south of the A1 in Qarghayi from which many attacks on the highway are staged. Over the two days locals reported that as many as one hundred insurgents descended from the range on the Nangrahar side and headed for the Pakistani tribal area of Kurram or to hideouts in other Afghan districts. This guaranteed that the insurgents would not try to re-occupy that advantage position until the end of winter.*
In Badakhshan, it was the provincial capital Faizabad and seven more districts (Shahr-e Bozorg, Yaftal-e Sofla, Arghanchkhwa, Teshkan, Baharak, Argu and Keshm) to be transferred to the ANSF on 24 January. Security in Badakhshan hardly follows developments related to the German PRT, whose troops never covered the whole of this vast and remote province, with its dozens of rival commanders and drug smugglers. Still, the occasional presence and initiative of insurgent networks in Badakhshan should not be underestimated: last 8 March two insurgents, allegedly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have been arrested in a night raid at the outskirts of Faizabad, by ISAF troops.
In Balkh, where on 25 January the whole province followed the path taken with the transition of the capital Mazar-e Sharif last summer, the situation remained quiet. However, there were complaints and worries about the process by no one less than the powerful governor Muhammad Atta, who stated that the additional ANSF troops promised during the first phase by Ashraf Ghani, the head of the Afghan government’s Transition Commission, had never materialised. Atta warned that the whole transition process could derail if adequate measures were not taken to strengthen security forces in critical areas. For the moment, he and provincial chief of police Ismatullah Alizai are busy with the annual transfer of additional ANSF towards the provincial capital, in view of the increased security measures for the Nawruz celebrations.
Sheberghan city, the capital of Jowzjan province, was transferred without trouble on 28 January. The city itself in fact does not present security concerns of the gravest kind; it is the border with Sar-e Pol and Fariab, sometimes referred to as the ‘Tri-provincial Area’ which hosts the majority of incidents.
A partial mystery remains around the situation of Takhar, where the transition ceremony, scheduled for 30 January, was postponed twice: first shifted to 13 February, and then to an unknown future date. The reasons behind it could well have been adverse climatic conditions, or the subsequent absence of Ashraf Ghani from the country, but it is not clear when Takhar will be officially handed over to the ANSF. In the meantime, the German Provincial Advisory Team (a kind of sub-PRT) which was already in the process of dismantling its base in the middle of Taloqan, the provincial capital, withdrew from there prematurely when the Quran burning riots spread to the area in late February (see a guest blog on this here).
Enteqal has also been postponed in Sar-e Pul. The transition ceremony – involving the whole province except for the districts of Kohistanat and Sayad – was scheduled for 30 January, while news of the transition appeared in Afghan newspapers on the 15 of that month. ISAF recently stated that transition there was postponed for political reasons and has still not formally taken place. This must of course refer to the string of protests calling for the dismissal of the provincial governor, which shook the provincial capital in mid-January (see our previous blog here).
Altogether, it is not clear to what extent the transition has ended the involvement of NATO troops in armed operations in some of the transitioned districts. To revert to the case of Helmand, in Nad Ali, for example, foreign troops along with ANSF clashed with insurgents only a few days after the transfer of responsibility, and only the US airstrike called in by them put an end to the battle. In the following weeks, and well into February, ISAF troops were consistently involved in patrols in the district – jointly with ANSF or on their own – even participating in poppy eradication operations alongside Afghan forces. One could only argue that the date of the ceremony being symbolic, transition may be considered effective from the beginning of the new Afghan year (20 March, as 2012 is a leap year).
However, there is another possible interpretation. After two rounds, enteqalhas become routine, and it is taken for granted as soon as it is announced or celebrated in a particular area. Transition, on the other hand, often includes the Taleban stepping up operations, in order to show that this is not a smooth process..The NATO command, is thus caught in a dilemma. It recognises (internally although not publicly) it has been unable to improve the performance of the ANSF dramatically within a few months, after a decade of efforts, and is unwilling to run the risk of putting Afghans in overall charge of delicate areas. At the same time, it needs to include areas with ‘name recognition’ in the process, simply in order to project progress.
NATO also does not rely on the ANSF only. It is adding an ever larger number of Afghan Local Police units, with a salutary injection of Special Forces mentors, in order to be able to transfer difficult areas more quickly. Many of the transitioned provinces feature ALP projects created more or less recently: Helmand, Badghis, Sar-e Pol, Wardak, Parwan, Daikundi – and in some of the former their rivalry with the Afghan National Police constitutes one major threat to stability. In Balkh,the Critical Infrastructure Project (CIP – one more from the acronym soup of security structures), notwithstanding its official disbandment in December, still fields 300 militiamen (200 in Char Bolak, 100 in Chimtal district). They are under the overall command of Lal-e Akhirranagah, a former Junbesh commander, now thoroughly loyal to top Jamiati governor Atta. To this powerful patron, one must add the problems that ‘sending them home’ would entail, and the overall strategic importance that is given to their presence on a major communication axis, the Mazar-Sheberghan road. Everything seems to indicate that the defunct CIPs will be integrated in the ALP program without changing much more than their name, and the fact that they will be receiving their salaries from the Ministry of Interior instead of from the PRT.**
Rumours of a future CIA-controlled war (see here and here, and our previous blog here) have been denied by the US government (here), but the idea originates from a not too different reality: that while a massive reduction in the number and visibility of foreign boots on the ground is taking place, there is no corresponding reduction in their overall role in the conflict. It remains to be seen what President Karzai’s request, in the aftermath of the Panjwai massacre, for a speedy withdrawal of the US troops from rural outposts (read here and here) will do to alter this approach – and the timetable and the character of transition in general.
In the meantime, in few days the second phase of transition will be declared complete, and the next batch of areas is due to be announced in April. These are due to be transferred by the end of June. The unofficial candidates’ list runs more or less thus: the rest of the already partially transitioned provinces of Badakhshan, Laghman, Nangrahar and Helmand; the whole of Kapisa, Uruzgan and Nuristan; most of Ghor and Jowzjan provinces and, finally, Kandahar city.***
*,Since then, a solitary insurgent attack took place in Tang-e Abrisham on 31 December, but the highway has been much quieter than previously, even in comparison with past winters, with only a couple of IEDs in the last three months.
** The same fate is probably in store for the rest of the CIPs, deployed mainly in the provinces of Sar-e Pul, Jowzjan and Fariab.
*** The symbolic value of the transfer of responsibility on Kandahar city is evident to everybody. The transition of the outlying districts of Badakhshan, which have barely seen a ISAF trooper in ten years, will be merely symbolic – likewise that of Nuristan – which was lost by US troops two years ago. Actually, to celebrate a transition there sounds outrageous, it would have been better to let past débȃcles slip away from collective memory, and instead make sure that the ANSF stand a chance against insurgents there by way of human and material reinforcements.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020