UK eyes areas for second stage of Afghan transition
NAD ALI, Afghanistan |
NAD ALI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - At least one former Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province has seen a big enough improvement in security to make it a likely candidate for a second wave of handovers to Afghan control by early next year, British forces say.
Violence remains high in parts of Helmand province, but districts such as Nad Ali offer NATO forces hope they can push forward with a slow-but-steady plan for gradually transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
NATO will pass security control in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah to Afghan forces within the next week, part of the first wave of transfers. The whole country will follow by the end of 2014, paving the way for the exit of most foreign troops.
But while there has been huge focus on the seven areas that will kick-start the process, there has been little public discussion of where next, or how fast transition will proceed.
British army officers, in charge of security in the central area of Helmand, say Nad Ali, a fertile agricultural area that lies just to the northwest of Lashkar Gah, could make the list for the second stage, possibly early in 2012.
"Lashkar Gah is transitioning now . Nad Ali will be next," said Captain Freddie Inglefield, who is in charge of mentoring Afghan police in the district, adding that he believed it would be "in a state to transition" by next March.
"An informal transition is already happening," he added.
Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser Rea, commanding officer of the second battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, said violence was down across central Helmand.
And in places like Nad Ali, the annual "fighting season," when insurgents have traditionally returned from winter hideouts, taking advantage of cover from new growth in orchards and vineyards to go on the offensive, sputtered out.
"For the first time in recent years, the locals are living through a summer ... without any real fighting season starting and that is a real sea change for them. They are now looking at what the (Afghan) government can offer," he said.
Major Jamie Murray, who commands B Company, 2nd Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles in the southern part of Nad Ali, said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan did not want to be held to a timeline, but he felt the area was "getting very ready" for a handover.
"This time one year ago there was some fierce fighting in Nad Ali South and this year we have not had to fight so far," said Murray, who comes from near Dundee in Scotland.
Other British officers caution however that the situation in northern Nad Ali is more difficult than in the south.
British officers say the improvement in security in parts of Helmand is due to the "surge" of U.S. and other NATO forces last year and to the rapid build-up of the Afghan army and police, who now man dozens of checkpoints in Nad Ali.
British forces are training and mentoring the police, guiding them on operations, joining them on patrols and advising them on searching vehicles and detaining suspects.
"We are not blind to their weaknesses and some failings but the overall message is extremely positive and one of improvement," Rea said.
"At the regional training centre, we've turned out well over 3,000 new policemen over the last couple of years."
Corporal Jitemdra Prasad Rai, a Gurkha based at Patrol Base Chilli in Nad Ali, said the experience was a sharp contrast to his last tour of duty in Helmand, in Musa Qala in 2009. His unit was engaged in persistent heavy fighting and lost two men.
NO MORE INSURGENTS?
On patrol with Gurkhas through the Loy Bagh areas, farmers are at work in fields planted with abundant crops of cotton.
Wide-eyed children rush out at the approach of the soldiers, hoping for sweets. The soldiers say hidden homemade bombs pose less of a threat in the area now and villagers come forward with information about where they have been placed.
Farmers in the area used to grow opium poppy, much of it exported to the West as heroin, but the Afghan government now prevented them, said 24-year-old Tamrasha, a farmer with only one name, speaking through an army interpreter.
"Now we just grow cotton, wheat, corn, beans," he said.
In the Shin Kalay area of Nad Ali, village elder and former Mujahideen commander Dr. Jelani said security was now good but the area needed electricity, education and health services.
"The elders of Shin Kalay did a very big job to convince the former insurgents to...surrender themselves to the government and take their part to rebuild their village," he said.
"There are no...more insurgents from this village."
The chief of the Afghan National Police in Nad Ali, Lieutenant-Colonel Shadi Khan, said the number of police officers should be increased and police checkpoints doubled in Nad Ali before security was transferred to local forces there.
"If you've got enough weapons, enough personnel, then I'm 100 percent sure we don't need ISAF over here and we would be able to control Nad Ali district," Khan told Reuters.
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison)
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