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Sorting Through The Hype In Afghanistan

The Afghan National Army, ready when you are?
The Afghan National Army, ready when you are?
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is setting the bar high. On March 22 in Kabul, he announced with great fanfare the names of seven areas where Afghan troops will soon take over security duties from the international forces that are protecting them now.

"The people of Afghanistan no longer desire to see others defend their country for them," Karzai declared. "This day will be a defining moment in the history of the country."

The handover, set for July, will officially mark the beginning of the transition of power from coalition troops to Afghans. The whole process is supposed to end by July 2014.

Okay, sounds good. But most of this is theater. In four of the areas Karzai mentioned, security isn't really an issue. Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Bamiyan, and the Panjshir Valley are all under the control of regional leaders solidly anchored in local communities. All of them are peaceful and none of them has ever really been dependent on help provided by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

That doesn't mean they're necessarily beholden to Karzai, however. Mazar-e Sharif is controlled by former Northern Alliance commander General Ata Noor, whose loyalty to the Kabul government has often been questioned. In the other three areas, too, the local powers-that-be enjoy far more respect than officials appointed by the capital. Security is usually in the hands of militias that obey regional powerbrokers.

All of this raises the question: When it comes to these four areas, what sort of handover of power is President Karzai talking about?

The situation is even more ambiguous in the case of the three others. In Kabul, one would hope that the national government has things pretty firmly under its control. Security there is reasonably good -- at least for the moment.

In Mehter Lam, the capital of unruly Laghman Province in the east, it will be interesting to see to what extent Karzai can establish central government control there. The biggest question mark of all hangs over Lashkar Gah, the capital of volatile Helmand Province in the south. This is probably the real litmus test for Karzai's plan.

What's clear is that he isn't going to have much time to make it work. The Taliban is already setting out to derail the schedule.

The independent Afghan news agency Pajhwok recently reported that the Taliban kidnapped 50 people -- most of them police officers -- in the area near Mehter Lam on March 26. That's not exactly a good omen for a city where security is supposed to pass into Afghan hands just a few months from now.

An official quoted by Pajhwok said that now the Taliban were asking the government for a prisoner exchange. The Taliban insists that the government will have to release 12 captive insurgents if it wants to see its police officers set free.

This shows the Taliban's confidence in their ability to undermine Karzai's plans -- especially in the eastern part of the country, close to their safe-havens in Pakistan's tribal areas.

If the situation in Lashkar Gah is any indication, the future doesn't look terribly bright in the southern part of the country, either.

The same day Karzai announced the plan for the security handover, the Taliban succeeded in forcing cell-phone companies in the town to shut down service. That was it. Since then, all cell phones -- the only modern means of communication in the province -- have been out of service. This sort of thing doesn't just make life harder for ordinary people and the business community in the area, it also sends a clear message about who runs things.

It's easy to understand why Karzai's optimistic announcements have some Afghans worried. As one man told the Tolo TV network, "It's worrying that the government is planning to hand over the security of the city to Afghan forces when it can't even protect cell-phone companies.'' Well put.

The telecoms breakdown in Helmand and the kidnapping in eastern Afghanistan are among many other worrying factors that call into question Karzai's claims about the country's readiness to assume responsibility for its own security.

Whatever else happens, it's clear that the success of his plan will be tested in these two volatile provinces -- and the outcome will shape future moves toward the transition of power in Afghanistan.

-- Muhammad Tahir