Afghan City May Be Test Case For U.S. Withdrawal

Gulab Mangal, the governor of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, says his security forces are ready to take control in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

hide captionGulab Mangal, the governor of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, says his security forces are ready to take control in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

Quil Lawrence/NPR

As the U.S. settles on the size and pace of troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, with an announcement expected next month, Afghan security forces are preparing to take formal control of seven locations across the country.

Some are cites or provinces that have been peaceful for some time, but at least one of the selections was unexpected: the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah.

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, is the last one to claim his southern province is no longer dangerous — it's been weeks since he survived his latest assassination attempt, by his count the 16th in his political career. But Mangal insists that his police and soldiers are ready to take control of security in Lashkar Gah.

"Three years ago, the international community would never think that Helmand would be able to take control of the city," he said. "The picture of the province was really gloomy, but now it's going to show a good image to Afghanistan and the world."

Andrew Erickson, senior U.S. diplomat in Helmand, said it came as a surprise that Lashkar Gah was one of the first places chosen. "A good surprise, and in fact it turned out to be validated just weeks afterward when we had the complex attack, on the government center right in the heart of Lashkar Gah," he said, referring to an attempted suicide bombing back in April.

"The governor handled it exactly as it should have been handled, and the security forces — all Afghan — did exactly what they were supposed to do. No foreign forces needed to be called in," Erickson said.

But as Erickson's example makes clear, the transition to Afghan control in Lashkar Gah has already taken place and few international troops are seen around the city. While the shift seems to be going well, the talk of transition in Afghanistan has people thinking about another change: the eventual withdrawal of some of the U.S. forces that surged into the southern regions last summer.

When U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry visited Lashkar Gah last week, he got an earful from the provincial council.

Ali Ahamd, a councilman from the district of Garamsir, thanked the Americans for restoring order. "I will say one year ago, we could not come here. We were under siege in this province," he said.

Men in Lashkar Gah jump into the Helmand River to beat the 120 degree heat of the Afghan summer.

hide captionMen in Lashkar Gah jump into the Helmand River to beat the 120 degree heat of the Afghan summer.

Quil Lawrence/NPR

But Ahamd also had a plea: "I hope you won't leave us alone again as you did before."

Eikenberry promised that the U.S. would continue to help train and equip the Afghan security forces even after American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.

"We've worked too hard over the last, almost 10 years now," he said. "We've sacrificed too much. We're not going to let these gains, these extraordinary gains that we've made, that I see here today in Helmand province, we are not going to see those gains lost."

Eikenberry ended his visit to the province with a heavily guarded walk along the Helmand River.

Hours later, many of the men in Lashkar Gah also crowded the riverbank, stripping off their shirts and jumping in the water to escape the 120 degree heat of the Afghan summer. Their baggy cotton trousers inflated like rubber life rafts as they surfaced.

One fully dressed man standing by the river, with a turban and a thick beard, said he thinks transition is a good step because the Americans are causing most of the problems.

"If we are dealing with Afghans and there are no foreigners here, we should not have any troubles," said Abdulqayoum, who comes from the still-violent district of Sangin.

When asked about the Taliban, Abdulqayoum answered in the first person.

"My people are ready to fight the Americans because they made us suffer," he said, "The foreigners shoot at everybody — they think are all Taliban. I think once the foreigners leave, our people will sit together and work out their differences."

But a few steps down the riverbank, a clean-shaven man who works for a medical charity in Lashkar Gah said he disagrees.

"As soon as there is a vacuum of power here, there will be chaos in the streets," said the man, who refused to give his name.

He said corruption is the root of the problem, and that before the Americans came, the police here were so dirty that people welcomed the Taliban. That corruption is still around, from Kabul to Lashkar Gah.

"Foreign forces should stay here as long as the people here, both in the Afghan government and in the Afghan security forces, are well-trained and ready to take over, the man said.

For now, he added, some families are hedging their bets — with a cousin in the army and a cousin in the Taliban movement — because they don't know who is going to come out on top.

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