RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
President Obama is on the verge of announcing exactly how many troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year. At the same time, Afghan security forces will take formal control of parts of the country. One of those places is the capital of the volatile Helmand province.
NPR's Quil Lawrence has just returned from Helmand and says many Afghans are happy to see their own police and soldiers taking the lead. They're also worried about what will happen when the Americans leave.
QUIL LAWRENCE: In Bolan sector of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, Ahmadullah, who commands a small police checkpoint, shows off his trusty Kalashnikov.
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LAWRENCE: Men like him will soon take control of Lashkar Gah, though it's impressive enough they're even here on the west side of the Helmand River, which was full of Taliban until last year's American troop surge. More impressive is that Lashkar Gah will be transferred to Afghan control, says Andrew Erickson, the senior U.S. diplomat in Helmand.
Mr. ANDREW ERICKSON (Senior U.S. Diplomat, Helmand Province): It was a surprise that Lashkar Gah was one of the first places chosen. But it was a good surprise, and, in fact it turned out to be validated just weeks afterwards, when we had the complex IED attack on the government center right in the center of Lashkar Gah. No foreign forces needed to be called in, and the governor was thrilled.
LAWRENCE: In April, suicide bombers attacked the courthouse, recently built with U.S. funding. Erickson says the Afghan police stopped the bombers and thwarted the attack, all on their own. No one is saying the threat of violence here will stop. Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal survived an assassination attempt just last month. But he says his men are up to the task.
Governor GULAB MANGAL (Helmand Province): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: This will send a positive message to the world and the rest of Afghanistan, says Mangal.
But the transition of U.S. troops from the city is raising fears of what might happen when U.S. troops start to leave Helmand and Afghanistan.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: When U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry visited Lashkar Gah last week, he got an earful from the provincial council: thanking America, but demanding the troops stay longer.
Unidentified #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Don't leave us alone as you did before, said one councilman. Eikenberry promised American support, even after troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
Ambassador KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): We've worked too hard over the last almost 10 years now. We've sacrificed together. We've sacrificed too much. We are 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.
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LAWRENCE: Down by the Helmand River, men and boys are trying to escape the heat, about 120 degrees, even with the sun setting. Their baggy, Afghan trousers balloon up like life rafts as they jump into the water.
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LAWRENCE: One man by the river is fully dressed, with a turban and a thick beard. Abdul Qayoum is from the still-violent district of Sangin. When asked about the Taliban, he answers in the first person.
Mr. ABDUL QAYOUM: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: If we are dealing with Afghans, and there are no foreigners here, he says, we should not have any trouble. He says foreign troops have killed too many innocent people, offended too many local customs. But he seems to think the transition will bring peace. Just a few steps down the riverbank, a tall, thin man with a cleanly shaven face has a different view.
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: As soon as there is a vacuum of power here, there will be chaos in the streets, says the man, who won't give his name. Before the Americans came, the police were so dirty that Helmand welcomed the return of the Taliban, he says. For now, security is better, and the economy, too, but he says the root of the problem remains. Some families have cousins in the Taliban and cousins in the army, he says, because they're not sure who's going to come out on top.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: In recent months, Afghanistan's president has been leveling increasingly harsh accusations at coalition forces. Hamid Karzai has suggested that they are occupiers and even enemies, and blamed them for everything from civilian death to pollution.
Yesterday, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry offered an unusually heartfelt response before a group of Afghan college students. He spoke of the Americans who'd given their lives there, and said when Afghan leaders, quote, "call us occupiers," he can't look mourning families in the eye and give them a comforting reply.
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