One Afghan official likened the process to defusing a bomb: It has to be done, but best to speak softly and move carefully, lest it blow up in your face.
Western troops have begun formally handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces, a long-awaited transition considered crucial to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s plans for winding down the war in Afghanistan after a wrenching decade of fighting.
By Monday, seven cities or provinces, most of them relatively tranquil, will be under the full control of the Afghan police and army, despite persistent fears about the Afghan forces’ ability to maintain order, build the trust of local people and fend off the Taliban.
These initial transition areas are testing grounds for ambitious plans to bring the entire country under the security umbrella of Afghan forces by the end of 2014, relegating the remaining Western troops to a largely training and peacekeeping role.
The first transfer ceremonies, spread out over successive days last week across the country, have been relatively low-key affairs, the language hopeful rather than triumphal. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who appeared at several of the events, said the transition was in line with Afghans’ “patriotic duty to defend and secure our country.”
In some of the designated areas, though, that is more easily said than done.
In Lashkar Gah, the capital of violent Helmand province, seven policemen were killed in a brazen strike less than 48 hours before Wednesday’s ceremony. A provincial spokesman, Daoud Ahmadi, said a turncoat officer at a checkpoint on the city’s edge apparently poisoned his colleagues and killed them as they lay unconscious; for good measure he made off with a truckful of weapons.
To some, it was a sign that the transition areas may prove to be only symbolic havens, isolated islands in a stormy sea.
In the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where security responsibilities were handed over Saturday, a bomber on a bicycle struck three days before, killing four civilians, including a child. His apparent target was a nearby police district headquarters, said provincial spokesman Muneer Farhad.
Farhad said he believed Mazar would remain relatively safe, although the city was shaken by a mob attack on a United Nations headquarters in April that left four Nepalese guards and three European workers dead. But across the province, he said, police lack adequate manpower.
“If the Afghan government and the international community don’t focus on the quality and quantity of the security forces, things might deteriorate in the future,” Farhad said. “In this province, we have only one police officer for every 4,000 people. That’s not enough.”
An Afghan security official in Mehtar Lam, the capital of Laghman province in the country’s east, sighed when asked about prospects for keeping the peace in the wake of last Monday’s hand-over. He had forebodings, he said, but had been instructed to publicly express only optimism and confidence about the security transition.
“Look, it’s like you find an IED,” he said, referring to an improvised explosive device, the favored weapon of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. “You can’t just leave it there. You have to try to remove it safely. We have to go ahead with this as best we can, even though there is the danger that by doing so, we could make things worse.”
Security transfer fears are pronounced in places such as Bamian, a mountainous central province that is considered one of the country’s safest. Its main connection with the insurgency dates back a decade: the Taliban’s destruction of its ancient Buddha statues. Other than that, it has been nearly untouched by the wave of insurgent violence in neighboring areas.
But soon after the province was designated as a transfer site, a prominent local politician was abducted, his mutilated corpse dumped by the roadside. Many residents saw it as a message from the insurgents: Don’t count yourselves secure.
In the western city of Herat, whose transfer took place Thursday, similar worries were voiced. Although insurgents attacked a NATO base on its outskirts in May, the city’s placid, tree-lined streets seem a world away from the capital, Kabul, where blast walls and checkpoints give the air of a garrison city.
But the insurgents have a substantial foothold in districts just outside Herat, and some observers say the notion of depending on the police for protection is generating a wave of apprehension among the citizenry.
“The police are not well trained — they are undisciplined, corrupt and badly behaved,” said Qader Rahimi, the Herat-based regional chief for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Kabul province, with the exception of one eastern district, is one of three provinces being handed over. In the capital itself, most people expect that in the event of crisis, Afghan authorities will continue to seek the aid of NATO troops headquartered in the city, as they did during last month’s siege of a landmark hotel by insurgent attackers.
And most believe that if Taliban fighters are determined to strike a given target, they will, no matter how well-guarded the area. That was underscored last week when assailants killed a senior aide to President Hamid Karzai in an wealthy district of Kabul. Volleys of gunfire rang late into the night.
The Taliban movement, meanwhile, watched the security transition with a mixture of scorn and menace.
“Even with the help of the coalition armies, Afghan forces couldn’t safeguard these areas,” said a spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi. “So how can they keep them safe now?”
Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.