Transition Phase Three: A Big Leap Forward

A new phase of the security transition, the third, has been announced. Every Afghan province is now going to be involved, at least partly, in the transfer of security from ISAF troops to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This is the case even in areas where foreign troops are no longer present or where Afghan troops are not present in sufficiently large numbers. A new report by AAN, ‘Beating a Retreat’, examines the long-term potential impact of transition – also known as enteqal – on security and the economy. Here, AAN analyst Fabrizio Foschini looks at the more immediate impact, both positive and negative, of the process on the ground, especially in the face of continuing (or resumed) Taleban operations.

(AAN’s new report ‘Beating a Retreat’ is available here)

We have been expecting the list of areas for the third tranche of transition to be announced several weeks ago. The announcement was finally made by President Karzai on Monday 14 May, but such delays have become customary. Still, the announcement came in time to figure among the achievements which will surely be listed at the NATO summit in Chicago due to be held this weekend (20 and 21 May 2012).

The official announcement (link here) was rather vague as to which areas were to be ‘transitioned’, only mentioning that three provinces – Parwan, Kapisa and Uruzgan – were to be completely transferred to the ANSF, along with 122 districts, and that once this was completed – a process that would take up to six months – the security for 260 administrative units, in which 75 per cent of the Afghan population lives, would be under the responsibility of the ANSF. The announcement, like the announcement of the second enteqal last autumn (when half of the population were said to be transferring into ANSF hands) sounded tailor-made for the international public. Such statistics allow the politicians back home to talk up the positive aspects of transition/withdrawal by focusing on quantity instead of quality.

Another point made in the announcement, and this is possibly the biggest surprise enteqal has presented so far, was that the third tranche would include all the provincial capitals which had not already been transitioned (20 out of 34). This step gives the process a truly national breadth, but at the same time, means that transition is being started even in provinces were security is bleak.

Despite the scant information provided, it is clear that the third tranche covers not only the urban districts of provincial capitals, but also in many cases much larger, rural districts. They of course are utterly different in character. This move had somehow been anticipated, after the Security Commission of the Lower House of the parliament had explicitly been asking for it during the last few months. Even so, it is still a bold decision. In this light, the words of the head of the government’s transition commission, Ashraf Ghani, last week – ‘the third transition will be difficult, we don’t want to lie to the Afghan people’ – ring as something more than mere rhetoric.

A new, obvious aspect of this phase is that the south will see a vigorous ‘leap forward’. Difficult Uruzgan, for example, is supposed to become foreigner-free in a single bound. Although security has had its ups and downs in the province during the last few months(1), other recent developments, like the appointment of a new governor, a member of the powerful Akhundzada family from neighbouring Helmand, have cast a shadow of uncertainty over the place. This appointment brings him into close relation with local strongman and militia leader Matiullah, who by becoming provincial chief of police last summer had managed to extend his writ almost unopposed (except by the Taleban).

It is too early to say if this is happening under the auspices of a power-sharing agreement brokered by one of Akhundzada’s powerful sponsors, the Border and Tribal Affairs minister (and plenipotentiary for security in the South) Asadullah Khalid, and whether it will result in a friendly cooperation between the two, or a competition that could further destabilise the province. One thing is certain, though: Uruzgan has recently experienced the ‘strongman-way to appointments’ in one of its purest forms countrywide. This may possibly keep security ‘good enough’, at the official level, to manage a sudden and quite sensational enteqal, but it certainly does not bode well for local governance.

Further significant transitions are due in the South in the next few months. Deciding to transition districts like Arghandab of Kandahar or Washer of Helmand, sounds brave – or possibly foolhardy. In an unexpected move, a couple of districts of Zabul province, as well as the provincial capital of Qalat, have been included in the list. Altogether, the move fits with the established NATO narrative that significant progress has been achieved in the south after the 2010 offensives and that insurgents have failed to re-gain lost ground.

In step with the NATO narrative of ‘success in the South and shift to the East’ (see our earlier blog here), the start of transition in Loya Paktia (which includes Paktia, Khost, Paktika, as well as parts of Ghazni) thus comes with some degree of ambiguity, as the region looks likely to be a major focus for US troops in the next months. If Paktia and Khost experience a timid start to enteqal, with basically only the urban districts being transitioned, the scope of enteqal in the two neighbouring provinces is far broader. In Ghazni, not surprisingly, it is mainly the northern, Hazara-majority districts that are on the list; they make up around half of the area of the province, while accounting for not even a tenth of its security troubles.

In Paktika, quite inexplicably, a high number of districts are scheduled for transition, including those in which, arguably, security and governance are far from satisfactory. The ANSF are to take charge of vast and remote districts like Dila wa Khoshmand, Wazakhwa, Tarwo and Wor Mamay; and although these have failed to attract the same degree of attention as Barmal or Urgun, they are heavily affected by the insurgency.

It can be argued that taking up responsibility for these areas could represent a tough but needed test for the ANSF, however the announcement of the transition of parts of Nuristan province is much less defensible. The only ISAF presence in the whole of Nuristan is to be found in Nurgram district, on the border with Laghman. It would probably have been more decent to keep silent on the matter as a whole, rather than announce transition in Mandol district, where not only have ISAF troops rarely been sighted in the last ten years, but it is even difficult to find a single Afghan policeman.

Paktika and Nuristan, in effect, are similar in that they are chronically under-staffed, under-resourced and under-reported on. They have developed into insurgent strongholds partly because of their peripheral positions, but are now seen by the Taleban as strategic objectives for massive operations. Remote and sparsely populated, they would still make a sensational success story for the Taleban if they were able to overwhelm the thin government presence in several district centres or – even briefly – the provincial capital itself. If in Nuristan, the insurgents seem normally on the verge of doing this, it would be difficult to foresee such a breakthrough on their part in Paktika. But one cannot blame them for not having tried. The provincial capital of Sharana – now to be transitioned – has already been targeted twice this year by Taleban commando squads using the same tactic as in Kabul and several other provincial capitals: storming buildings in central locations and fighting to the death (lesser district centres in the province have also witnessed these kind of attacks in 2012, most recently Yahya Khel). Sharana has been the target of insurgent violence even last year, and as early as in summer 2007, there were relatively massive attacks; some interpreted these as attempts to take the provincial capital.

In contrast with other areas, in Paktika it is the districts with Afghan Local Police (ALP) units that have mainly been excluded from transition. Having an ALP normally implies the presence of US Special Forces’ mentors who are not part of ISAF. In fact, out of three districts in Kunar province (apart from the provincial centre of Asadabad) which are included in this phase of enteqal, two have ALP units. The transition of the lower Kunar valley could see the US troops focus more on the shaky northern section, with a view to either fixing it or, at least, preventing further deterioration in one of the most violent areas of the country, before the next phases of transition takes place.(2)

What is clear is that no border districts are going to be transitioned in this sensitive area, neither in the lower part of the Kunar valley – the three districts to be transitioned, Narang, Chawki and Nurgal, are on the right bank of Kunar river – nor in neighbouring Nangrahar, with the sole exception of Mohmand Dara. This exception is probably allowed in order to fulfil the old project of giving early responsibility to the ANSF for the whole Kabul-Torkham stretch of Highway One, which crosses Mohmand Dara before reaching Pakistan. But the lack of other border transitions testifies to the bad situation of frontier districts in the east, and the acknowledgement of the threat coming from the ‘other side’. On Monday, while visiting long-time US ally Governor Sherzai in Jalalabad, Ambassador Crocker issued a stern and unequivocal warning, notwithstanding the use of the customary periphrase ‘Afghan neighbours’ adressed to Pakistan.(3)  (Read the Pajhwok article here)

Infiltration of militants from Pakistan of course does not only concern districts located on the Durand Line. The issue of the so-called ‘insurgency eastern corridor’ seems to have been considered, at least partly, in the decisions of the transition commission. Enteqal, which in Laghman started very early (its provincial capital was in the first batch of areas transitioned in mid-2011) is going to have at least four phases, despite this province being relatively small. Two districts of Laghman figure in this third batch, but two more are left for future stages. One of them is the newly carved out Badpakh which was separated from Mehtarlam precisely for the purpose of the first enteqal. The area served for many years as a stay-over for traveling militants, until the establishment of government presence and a US outpost there in spring 2011 (see our earlier blog). The other district left is Dawlat Shah. It is not clear if the US troops operating there will continue to be based in a forward base in neighbouring Alisheng, as the latter is due to be transitioned, but the strategic value of this remote district is clear: it has a series of rugged mountain passes leading into neighbouring Nuristan, Panjshir and Kapisa.

Kapisa will instead experience a one-shot transition. Serious security problems there, coupled with the newly-elected French president François Hollande’s announcement of an early withdrawal of France’s ISAF contingent, are creating some nervousness inside and outside Afghanistan. Although there are precedents for this (Sarkozy’s electoral promise of withdrawing the contingent before the end of 2013), the new deadline set by Hollande for the end of this year will definitely be ahead of the collective timetable set by NATO and does not fit with the monitoring role that ISAF troops are supposed to play during the last year of their presence, 2014. It remains to be seen whether this decision will lead to diplomatic confrontation, or if the impasse will be overcome with the usual mixture of, on one hand, minimizing the impact of the decision and, on the other hand, including it in the narrative of a shared transition framework – maybe in exchange for a French promise to remain longer, at least in a training capacity (you can read a soothing commentary here).

The fact remains that the tiny, but central Kapisa province will require the best efforts of the Afghan government in terms of provision of security and good governance to prevent it from slipping further down the Afghan scale of stability and government control. Also, Kapisa and neighbouring Parwan province, which will also soon see its transition completed, are increasingly becoming vital for the Taleban strategy of effecting a virtual encirclement of Kabul – indeed a very virtual one, but still rather effective in impressing the global media and the population of the capital, too.

Other central areas will be included in this phase of the transition: three northern districts of Logar province and two of the most troublesome in Wardak. Surprisingly, a newcomer to enteqal, Baghlan province, will see some of its more problematic districts, at least in terms of insurgency, transitioned first. The same seems to hold true for Kunduz, whose only district not to be on the list is the relatively quiet Khanabad, where concerns are however created by conflicting ALP units and other militias (see a recent report on it or its refutation).

Farah province, recently visited by Ashraf Ghani, will also join the transition caravan with a fair choice of districts, in addition to the provincial centre. As another proof that the ALP/Special Forces behave quite independently from the transition framework, it is interesting to note how districts where ALP projects are already in place will not be part of the transition, while Bala Boluk, where such a project is about to start, will.

Further north-west, this phase will affect the remainder of already partly-transitioned Herat and Badghis provinces, except their most notorious districts of Shindand, Bala Murghab and Ghormach respectively.(4) Ghor province also keeps the pace of transition with some more areas on the new list, while retaining its problems of rival commanders and roaming bands of motorcycled, armed men of uncertain affiliation, increasingly bent on targeting NGOs and the (few) foreigners left. To conclude briefly, most of Badakhshan, Jowzjan and Fariab will also change hands in the next six months.

Among the positive signs of the recent announcements on enteqal, a new stress on good governance as a determinant asset for success in creating security must be mentioned (read here). However, it is also true that the shortages of the ANSF in terms of cadres and technology, after the conflict has been conducted in an ‘American Way’ for several years now, risk leaving them inadequately equipped to conduct operations in the more inaccessible areas.

In fact the third phase of transition, as it has been announced, does not bode well for a number of rural districts which, by the mere fact of their not being considered strategic enough, risk being abandoned by any organised form of security forces and state presence. Of course, much will depend on developments taking place there in the next months, both on the side of the government and by the insurgency, but for some of them opportunities for critical improvement at present seem very small.

By contrast, the decision to transition all provincial capitals, that sounds like a bold one creates the possibility for a potentially positive, although risky, development. The so-called new tactics announced by insurgents earlier this month seem to rely very much on high-profile attacks on urban locations: Kabul and other provincial capitals. Their use of numerous commando squads and their ‘pitched battle’ approach defy established definitions of terrorist warfare and create much more sensation in the media. The ANSF may have a hard time repelling these attacks, especially in under-resourced provinces, but when they manage to do so, increasingly without massive ISAF support, it can also mean a bonus in term of morale and public appreciation – as recently happened after the April 15 attacks in Kabul – and conversely mark a defeat in terms of propaganda for the insurgents.

(1) Susanne Schmeidl, of the locally well-networked The Liaison Office, recently told The Australian that only around half of the province is under government control (read here), and much of it is rather precarious (read also her blog for AAN at the time of Matiullah’s appointment).

(2) Recently, the Taleban shadow governor for Kunar, a senior local Salafi figure, has been reportedly replaced by the Taleban leadership in Pakistan with an outsider, a commander from Loya Paktia with links to the Haqqanis. The purpose of the change, which was allegedly opposed by many local Taleban, would have been to push the latter to a renewed, more aggressive attitude against the ANSF in the area.

(3) Not only the location of the speech, but Crocker’s very invitation to ‘thoroughly study the strategic deal and stop supporting insurgents’ makes more sense in a Pakistani context than an Iranian one. Last winter, before the sudden halt to talks made by the Taleban, both the US administration and the Afghan government appeared hopeful of having achieved unprecedented degrees of acceptance for a political arrangement by their Pakistani counterparts.

(4) A notorious ex-mujahed and insurgent commander by the fascinating nom de guerre of Abdullah Charsi (‘the hashish-smoker’) who was till recently busy creating troubles in Pashtun Zarghun district of Herat, especially by harassing truck convoys (he had run a transport company himself in better times), has apparently been persuaded to accept a high rank in the Afghan army. He is now happily deployed in Farah province where he devotedly serves the country.

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Thematic Category: Region