The transfer of power to Afghan security forces has reached another milestone on July 20 as NATO forces hand over the capital of Helmand Province to the Afghan government.
At a ceremony in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General John Allen, said the handover was made possible by years of hard work.
"It will be Afghan soldiers, Afghan police, and Afghan patrolmen who will take the lead in ensuring the transition is irreversible," Allen said. "This is the realization of all that we and our Afghan partners have fought so hard to achieve, to enable Afghanistan to stand on its own again."
Helmand Province is in southern Afghanistan, bordering restive Kandahar Province where a half-brother of President Hamid Karzai was assassinated on July 12.
The symbolic event in Lashkar Gah comes two days after an Afghan soldier shot and killed a British soldier during a routine patrol in the province.
The same day, an Afghan police officer reportedly poisoned and shot seven fellow officers at a checkpoint in Lashkar Gah.
Also on July 18, another British soldier was killed by an improvised explosive device in Helmand.
Helmand Province Governor Gulab Mangal, who himself was the target of a Taliban assassination attempt earlier this month as he traveled to Kandahar for the funeral of Karzai's brother, told reporters on July 19 that insurgent forces were actively trying to disrupt the security handover.
"Of course, the Taliban will try to interrupt the process of transition," he said "If we see the last few incidents in Kabul and other areas, it is directly related to the transition. The Taliban is trying to raise questions [about] this process, they will try again to disrupt this process of transition but we are trying to protect by getting ready for this type of attacks."
Sternest Test Yet
NATO has already handed over security of the relatively peaceful Bamiyan Province and the eastern town of Mehter Lam, capital of Laghman Province. But analysts regard the handover in Helmand as the sternest test yet for Afghanistan's fledgling security forces.
Security in Helmand has primarily been the responsibility of British forces, and London has announced a complete withdrawal of its 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Some observers have expressed concern about the large role to be played by the Afghan police force in the new security architecture, because the force is widely viewed as riddled with corruption.
Ironically, Helmand Province police chief General Hakim Angar was in London less than a month ago to discuss combating corruption with London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.
Stephenson and his assistant commissioner, John Yates, have since resigned over corruption allegations in their ranks in connection with the "News of the World" voicemail-hacking scandal.
Nonetheless, Governor Mangal is optimistic that the transition process is realistic, and said that he trusted "the country should be given to Afghan authority" in 2014.
"However, our international colleagues have to complete the promises they have made on training and giving modern weapons to Afghan security forces," he added.
U.S. Major General John Toolan, commander of ISAF's Regional Command Southwest, told Reuters on July 20 that even after 2014, the international community would be ready to offer assistance when needed.
"We're here until 2014 and you know our response is going to be quick, but it will be based on their need and their asking," Toolan said. "Nothing will be generated from us on our own. If they ask, we'll be here. We'll be here in seconds."
Transition is also to begin this week in Herat, the capital of the western province of the same name; in Panjshir Province, north of Kabul; and in Mazar-e Sharif, in the northern Balkh Province.
In Mazar-e Sharif, police said a bomb planted on a bicycle killed at least four civilians.
compiled from agency reports