The choice of Lashkargah as one of the first areas to be transferred into Afghan security responsibility was a surprise but can be explained: It is to give credence to the fulsome ISAF reports and certain sections of the media that peace, hope, and stability are just around the corner in this troubled corner of Afghanistan, and President Karzai can project that not only non-Pashtun are safe enough to be enteqal-ed. But does it really if Lashkargah is kept safe if the Taleban own the rest of the province? We continue our loose series about the ‘Enteqal Seven’ with a guest blog by Jean MacKenzie(*).
Lashkargah was an inspired choice as a primary site to be handed over to full Afghan security. Singling out sleepy Bamian, cosmopolitan Mazar or cultural Herat as the symbol of international success in effecting a security transition would hardly cause a stir.
But Lashkargah? Now there’s a name that will make people sit up and take notice. Few cities loom as large in the popular imagination as this capital of Helmand province, the country’s centre for poppy-growing, British-bashing, and school-burning.
Being able to publicly state that Lashkargah is ready to transition to full Afghan-led security was a coup for the international forces, and will doubtless ease the promised exit of an indefinite number of US troops from Afghanistan in July. It also gives some credence to the fulsome reports from ISAF and certain sections of the media that peace, hope, and stability are just around the corner in this troubled corner of Afghanistan.
It does not hurt that Helmand is led by a man whom most observers, both Afghan and international, characterize as one of the most efficient governors in the country. Gulab Mangal, who was appointed in early 2008, seems to have brokered some sort of uneasy truce between Helmand’s various power factions, including, if local journalists are to be believed, the Taleban.
Under his tutelage, the provincial government took on at least the semblance of honesty, with a widely publicized scandal over the Food Zone program giving a clear signal that this governor was serious about tackling corruption . In a multimillion dollar program funded mainly by the British government in 2009, more than 90 Afghan officials were arrested for fraud and embezzlement. Many were subsequently released, but a dozen or so, including one of the governor’s closest advisers, were held for significant periods of time. (For more background, see those two reports, here andhere – note: the latter one cannot be accessed in Afghanistan, for whatever reason.) Relations with the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) have never been more cordial, and the city is experiencing a rare period of relative peace.
But Lashkargah is an island in the middle of a very stormy sea. This was amply demonstrated on 24 May, when Governor Mangal decided to take a road trip to Sangin, one of the most violent districts in the province; this was the first time he went anywhere by road since he took office. Officials normally travel by helicopter in Helmand, hopping from one heavily fortified town or district to the next, but Mangal was intent on showing that Helmand was now secure.
He was wrong. Mangal’s motorcade suffered an ambush while on the way back to the capital; his car was damaged, but no one in his entourage was hurt. Two insurgents were killed by the governor’s guards.
The incident raised questions in many minds about the feasibility of a full-fledged transition in Helmand; but Daud Ahmadi, the governor’s eternally optimistic spokesman, was adamant that no attacks would slow down the transfer of authority to the Afghans. ’Such operations do more good than harm,’ he insisted. ‘It gives our security forces more experience and improves their performance. This will not affect the transition at all.’
He may be right. Given the international pressure to maintain the narrative of success in the volatile south, it would take a major catastrophe to derail the process.
The security of Lashkargah is assured, not so much by the Afghan forces inside the city limits, as by the nearly 30,000 international troops that patrol the rest of the province. The United States has some 18,000 troops in Helmand; the British have nearly 9,500 . Other nations like Denmark and Georgia contribute smaller numbers. Those troops are struggling to maintain order in Gereshk, Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawa, Nad Ali, and Marjah . Daily reports indicate that operations are proceeding; casualty figures on both sides are mounting, and the situation remains precarious.
Other areas are barely heard from: Washir, Khaneshin, Kajaki, Dishu, Baghran. There are very good reasons for this, say local journalists. It is not that a government-ruled peace reigns in those sections of Helmand, it is that the provincial government has all but ceded the ground to the Taleban. ’There are places that are completely under Taleban control ,’ said a local journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution. ‘The government cannot easily go there. The Taleban control the roads. But the government is not attacking them , and everything is quiet.’
But even in areas supposedly loyal to the government, there are grounds for concern. Musa Qala, a troublesome district in northern Helmand, had been a bone of contention for years. The British were bogged down there in late 2006, and were able to withdraw only after signing a peace pact with the local elders, who promised to keep the Taleban out, if the British promised not to attack. The deal broke down within a few months, and in February 2007, the Taleban overran the district centre. They established control there until a combined British/Afghan force drove them out ten months later.
Since then, the government has been claiming success. Speaking to a foreign journalist in October, 2010, then provincial police chief Assadullah Sherzad confidently stated that all of Musa Qala was in the hands of the government. ’Don’t translate this part,’ he then said sotto voce to an Afghan colleague. ‘But we actually control two kilometres in the centre. The rest is with the Taleban.’
Rosy assessments of the situation in Marjah, Nawa and Nad Ali are also belied by the frank reactions from local residents, who are fearful of night raids by the U.S. forces, angry at broken promises of international assistance, and nervous about interaction with the Taleban, who are often their next-door neighbours.
The district governments present an uneven picture. General Stanley McChrystal’s promises of ‘government in a box’ that could be brought in to administer newly ‘liberated’ area have fallen flat.
After the much-touted ‘battle for Marjah’ in February 2010, the US military brought in a governor who had little local support, Haji Zahir Arian. He had lived in Germany for years and was subsequently found to have served time in a German prison for aggravated assault. He was quietly removed a few months later.(**) The new district governor, Abdul Mutaleb Majbur, has deep roots in the community, and is drawn from the local khan class.
The Afghan Local Police, known in this traditional corner of Afghanistan as ‘arbakai,’ have also presented problems in the districts. In Marjah the new district governor had to suspend the arbakai program after different armed groups of young toughs decided to use their new authority to settle some local disputes.
But Lashkargah itself seems to prosper. ’There are police and security forces at every roundabout,’ said a local resident. ‘There are new contingents of troops from the National Directorate of Security (NDS). They are very professional and well-equipped. After the attack in Kandahar all of the tall buildings are under very tight security.’
On 7 May, the Taleban had launched a major attack on Kandahar city, paralyzing the area for two days. The attackers were ultimately vanquished, but the fact that they were able to gain access to several buildings, coupled with the spectacular escape of almost 500 Taleban from Kandahar’s Sarpoza prison in April vividly illustrates why Lashkargah was chosen to anchor the transition rather than its much larger and more violent neighbor (see one report describing the Sarpoza incident here and also check our recommended readings column here for additional reporting).
The US-led offensive operations in southern Afghanistan have decimated the Taleban mid-level leadership, which, in the opinion of the international forces, should make the insurgency easier to deal with. But, if recent studies are to be believed, NATO’s success may be its undoing. The new generation of Taleban is more radical and less inclined to negotiate (read an interesting report on this issue here). ’The new Taleban have changed the game,’ said a Helmand journalist who reports quite frequently on the Taleban. He asked that his name not be used since he is now under threat from the insurgency. ’They are not observing the old rules. The Taleban did not used to attack Lashkargah. That was the agreement. But these new guys have issued a directive to kill all government sympathizers. They do not recognize the limits that were set before .’
At the end of April, Haji Zahir, the erstwhile governor of Marjah, was assassinated by unknown gunmen who broke into a private house where he was having dinner. Haji Zahir had been appointed deputy head of the Helmand Peace Council, which sought to establish productive contacts with the Taleban leadership. Neither the Taleban nor any other group claimed responsibility for the killing, but it did show that the supposedly safe capital has some deep problems.
But in spite of all of the warning signs, most residents of Lashkargah believe the transition should go ahead. ’There has been intense activity here ever since the transition was announced,’ said Aziz Ahmad Shafe, who works for the BBC in Helmand. ’The new police chief, General Abdul Hakim Angar, is very serious. And the reform of the police is proceeding. Mangal has established good coordination between the police, the army, the security police , and the international troops. The entire 215 Maiwand Corps is here for the army; the police have the whole 707 Corps. There are hundreds of border police and there are also quick reaction forces. There is no problem for transition .’
So by all indicators, Lashkargah will exist in some sort of military bell jar; access to it will be tightly controlled by the significant numbers of international troops still in the area. It is unlikely that US President Barack Obama’s drawdown of troops will start with the south.
The city itself will be overrun with police, army and security forces. The Taleban have shown a penchant for avoiding fights they are sure to lose. There may be some hit-and-run attacks, or a few missiles, as happened in mid-May.
But at least in the short run, Lashkargah should be safe enough. If Taleban rhetoric is anything to go by, however, attacks will increase in those districts where the foreign forces are concentrated: Gereshk and Sangin being the major foci, with intermittent hits in Nawa, Nad Ali, and Marjah. Fighting may intensify in Kajaki if the US government goes ahead with the long overdue US$ 266 million project to install a third turbine in the power station there; the Taleban still control the roads in the area, and have been firm in their determination not to allow the project to go ahead.(*)
But Lashkargah town will remain calm, a symbol to all that the transition can really work.
(*)Jean MacKenzie has been reporting on Afghanistan for the past seven years. From 2004 to 2009 she was the director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting; currently she is the senior correspondent for Global Post News (www.globalpost.com).
(**) ‘There may be no better symbol of American involvement in southern Afghanistan — initial success, current frustration and an uncertain future — than the giant Kajaki Dam’, wrote the Los Angeles Times last year (‘Helmand dam a monument to U.S. challenges’, 6 September 2010, read ithere). In fall 2008, a gigantic convoy of 5,000 British soldiers, flanked by US special forces, pushes through 100 tons of material for the third turbine all the way from Kandahar to the dam, but the workers hired by a Chinese firm that was to do the actual work fled for security reasons. Also cement was lacking on the ground, and the Taleban were billing the locals for the electricity that still was produced by the two running turbines.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020