On Wednesday, in a red-carpet ceremony, those foreign troops turned over security control of Helmand province’s largest city to the Afghan National Security Forces, part of a scheduled transition of seven Afghan cities or provinces this month. By most measures, Lashkar Gah is the least stable of the seven, with insurgents still thriving on the city’s outskirts.
The transition here is seen as a crucial test of the overall capacity of Afghan forces — a chance to gauge the abilities of troops and police in a place with no shortage of security challenges.
But only half of central Lashkar Gah — just over a square mile — will actually take part in the transition. The area is an island of relative security and marked progress in a region that continues to face grave threats from insurgents. That small swath of land has been controlled by Afghan forces for more than a year, and the official transition will bring little change, even as officials call this the beginning of the end for NATO’s military engagement in the region.
Meanwhile, the operations that could dictate the city’s future are being conducted just beyond its periphery, where a bustling bazaar gives way to scrubby farmland. This week, Latif and his unit continued a push northeast of the city, encountering fire from Taliban fighters on nearly every patrol. When those fights intensify, they call on foreign troops: British armored vehicles and U.S. Apaches.
“This is the front lines for us,” said Col. Ataullah Zahir, Latif’s commander, leaning against a mud-baked hut seven miles from central Lashkar Gah, a firefight echoing in the distance. “This is where we’re proving ourselves.”
Like other top Afghan officials here, Zahir boasts of recent gains and his battalion’s growing independence, pointing to the men on foot patrol with him: three-dozen Afghans and not a single soldier from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. The men follow dirt roads through a former Taliban stronghold, brushing past poppy fields on their way north.
Zahir has drawn a bold vertical line on a map in his office, marking a boundary about 10 miles east of the city. As dignitaries discussed the symbolism of the city’s official transition, he rallied his men around an unofficial, far more ambitious idea: “We need to take responsibility for everything west of this line,” he said.
That ambition has impressed the British soldiers — his battalion’s mentors — who share a base with his men in the Afghan desert.
“Over the last few months, these guys have really started delivering the goods,” said British Capt. Matt Williams.
But policing the streets of Lashkar Gah and assuming responsibility for vast expanses of farmland where the Taliban have deep roots are wildly different challenges, Zahir said. Achieving operational independence in the rural parts of Helmand could take years.