Merchants sell songbirds and fighting partridges along with less exotic local products such as okra and onions in the eastern provincial capital of Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan. (Pam Constable/THE WASHINGTON POST)

MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan — In this small, sweltering provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan, news usually takes one of two forms: the latest deadly attack by Taliban insurgents or the latest high-profile project of American military teams, who have built roads, bridges and waterworks.

Yet many residents say they can hardly wait for U.S. troops to withdraw from Laghman Province, one of seven areas in the country that have been chosen for an early, partly symbolic transition from foreign to Afghan security control beginning next month. All foreign combat forces are to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014.

Some Laghmanis say NATO forces have been a lightning rod for Taliban attacks that will end once the foreigners depart. Some are tired of being forced off roads by fast-moving, heavily armed military convoys. Many are convinced the Afghan police and army can do a better job of protecting them from a familiar enemy on familiar turf.

“When the Americans leave, we will all pass out sweets,” said Najibullah, 24, a mechanic who has a brother in the army. “They have paved the roads and done other good things, but they have created problems, too. The Taliban say they come here to do jihad, but that is just an excuse. Once the Americans leave, the excuse will be gone. If the Taliban come back and kill my brother, I will be the first to kill them.”

Provincial security officials, echoing statements by President Hamid Karzai and national police and army leaders, expressed confidence that Afghan forces will be ready to take charge. A battalion of army special forces is to relocate here, and intelligence operations have met with recent success.

Last week, officials said a terrorist plot was foiled when a truck carrying 5,300 pounds of explosives was detected and impounded.

But some tribal and political leaders here said they are far from satisfied with the planned security handoff. On Saturday night at a local cable TV business, two bombs exploded in quick succession, an insurgent tactic designed to draw victims to the scene. The second bomb killed two police officers. But the tribal elders are far more worried about remote rural districts where Afghan forces are reluctant to enter and insurgents can roam freely.

“Our area of security is shrinking every day,” said Atiqullah Rahmzai, head of the provincial council, whose predecessor was killed in a Taliban ambush in March. “We were happy the foreign forces were here, and our biggest concern is what will happen when they leave. We will still be all right in the city, but if we don’t create local police forces, who is going to go out and protect people in the villages?”


Several hundred miles to the west, the ancient city of Herat near the Iranian border is also slated to transition to Afghan security control next month. The other five areas are the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north; the city of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan; most of Kabul, the capital; tiny Panjshir Province; and the city of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

As in Mehtar Lam, the positive elements of the foreign military role in Herat — carried out by an Italian reconstruction team — have been challenged by increasingly ambitious insurgent attacks. There, too, people view the pending shift of forces with relief, mixed with lingering worries.

This ambivalence deepened in May, when a Taliban commando force stormed the NATO compound in the city. Afghan forces rushed to the site and opened fire, killing several assailants and preventing the base from being overrun. Shortly before the attack, a bomb in another part of the city killed several civilians.

Heratis expressed pride in the Afghan forces’ response and concern that the Taliban, which had been largely unable to penetrate Herat in the past, is launching bold assaults in the well-patrolled metropolis. Officials said the attacks were aimed at challenging the planned security transition.

(The Washington Post)

“The enemy wanted to disrupt security and create terror, but we managed to bring the situation under control,” said Sayed Aqa Saqib, the police chief. He said that 11 Taliban, including the region’s deputy “shadow” governor, had been arrested after the attack.

“We are sure that Afghans can better maintain security, as they have done for years,” he said.

Most residents also seemed confident that Afghan forces can protect them. As in Mehtar Lam, several people in Herat suggested that the departure of NATO forces could help persuade Taliban militants to leave residents alone.

“The more security responsibility is handed over to Afghans, the better security becomes,” said Tooryalai Ghawsi, deputy head of Herat’s chamber of commerce. At present, he said, Afghan and Western forces often feud over who controls which area. “This confusion will end with the hand-over,” he said. “Afghans will lead operations, take charge and fight with purpose.”

Despite the tough talk, there are practical limits to what Afghan forces can do. Herat, with an estimated population of 750,000, has only 180 regular police officers. The surrounding province, with a population of nearly 3 million, has 2,600 police — including cooks and cleaners. There is also a major problem with drug addiction and corruption in the police force, civic leaders said.

In one location on the security transition list, Bamiyan, people are demanding that the international forces stay. Famous for its ancient Buddha statues, Bamiyan is the ethnic Hazara heartland. For years it has been free of insurgent attacks, but several weeks ago, Taliban fighters ambushed the provincial council chief on a highway and beheaded him, provoking street protests.

“The government has neglected our security, and the roads are not safe,” said Abdullah Barad, a protest organizer. “Afghanistan is not a nation; it is based on different ethnic groups. We trust the foreign forces more than the Afghans to defend us. We are Hazaras, and the Afghan army is full of Pashtuns. How can we be sure there aren’t Taliban among them?”

Salahuddin reported from Herat. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.