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Are Afghan forces ready to go it alone?

By Gol Ahmad Ehsan, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting –

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — As the Afghan military and police take charge of providing security in ever-increasing portions of the country from departing international forces, many local residents are asking one question: Are local forces really up to the task?

As of Dec. 26, the Afghan government assumed responsibility to providing security in three districts in Helmand province — Marja, Nad Ali and Nawa — as well as Balkh, Daikondi, Takhar, Nimroz, Samangan and Kabul provinces.

Saleh Mohammad, a resident of the Nad Ali, said Afghan forces were unable to provide security even with the presence of foreign troops. He wondered how they’d be able to maintain order now that they’re on their own.

“I think that once the transition process is completed, warfare will intensify in Helmand,” he said. “It’s true that the Afghan police and army are better trained than in the past, but they aren’t equipped with the weapons and artillery they need to prevent Taliban attacks.”

Others remember that when responsibility for security in this provincial capital was handed over to local forces in July, Lashkar Gah was hit by a number of suicide attacks.

Lashkar Gah resident Abdul Hadi said that while he approved of the handover, he doubted Afghan forces were ready to shoulder the responsibility.

“If the process of transition is to take place now, it will certainly entail bloodshed among Helmand’s people,” Abdul Hadi said. “At a time like this, I think that handing over security would be a big betrayal.”

Mohammad Laiq Sarferaz, who served as an officer in the Soviet-backed military of the 1980s, said he knows why government security forces are no match for the Taliban.

“These forces are divided into (ethnic and factional) groups, and … put their personal and group interests first, which are not necessarily those of the country or the nation,” he said. “Another important point is that these forces don’t have the same motive for fighting as the Taliban have.” While the insurgents believe in pursuing war for their faith and for a free Afghanistan, Sarferaz said, government forces are still aren’t sure what they are fighting for.

“If the armed forces aren’t given a clear explanation of what patriotism and the aims of the war are, they won’t be able to maintain security,” he added.

One former member of the national army, who deserted two months ago, confirmed this assessment.

“We don’t know who our friends and enemies are,” said the former officer who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “One day our president says the Taliban … are our enemies, and the next he calls them our brothers. The Americans view the Taliban as their enemies one day, yet they have started underground talks with them and say they aren’t their enemies.” Government and defense officials deny that the military lacks resolve or direction.

According to Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, “when responsibility for security in Lashkar Gah was handed over to Afghan forces, people were concerned and mistrustful about whether security would be maintained in the city. And at the same time, our opponents tried to stir up chaos to demonstrate that the transition had been a failure. However, our brave Afghan forces were able to prevent any type of incidents.”

With proper training and equipment in place, Mangal said, “We are ready to deal with any kind of security issue. We want to reassure the public that no problems will arise.”

Both the defense and interior ministry have recently intensified their recruitment processes. Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi says the Afghan National Army now has 180,000 members and will reach 195,000 by October 2012. The army is expected to have 240,000 members by the end of 2014, when international troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.

But the commander of the army unit responsible for security in Laskar Gah acknowledges that army units in the province do not have all the weapons they needed.

“We have a very good plan in place in Helmand, and coordination among the national army, the national police and Afghan National Security Directorate is excellent,” said Gen. Shirshah. “We can take over responsibility for security from the foreign forces, and I would like to assure people that there won’t be any problems — we are going to do better,” he said.

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