LASHKARGAH - Taliban insurgents are trying to sabotage a security handover in the capital of Afghanistan's violent southern Helmand province, but Afghan police and troops can protect the city after a year of preparation, British army commanders say. The late July handover will be a formality, that will make "no difference at all" on a day-to-day basis as Afghans have been in charge of the city since last summer, said Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Aitken, commander of the 4th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
"It is not since August in 2010 that ISAF last intervened in a security incident within Lashkargah city," Aitken said. "But as a symbol actually it means quite a lot because it means that the Afghans can definitely say publicly that they are in charge of security," he added. Lashkargah, the busy capital of the southern province of Helmand, is the most volatile of the seven areas where NATO-led forces in late July will kick off a years-long process of transferring security control to their Afghan counterparts.
The transfer will be a key test of NATO plans to hand security across the country to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, allowing the United States, Britain and other countries where the public is weary of the long Afghan war to take their troops off the front line.
The Taliban are making good on a threat to target the process; successful attacks could undermine confidence in Afghan forces and the overall transition.
Reuters journalists staying at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base in Lashkargah were jolted awake one recent morning by the thump of a nearby explosion.
"They are constantly trying to disrupt ... That is the sort of thing we anticipate," Colonel Andrew Jackson, deputy commander of Task Force Helmand, the British-led contingent in Helmand, told Reuters in an interview Sunday.
Jackson said the bomb, targeted at a police convoy, was "ineffective." Other officials said it caused no casualties. "The insurgent will still try to undermine the process but I remain confident in the ability of the Afghan security forces to contain and rebut it," Jackson added.
British army chiefs say the Afghan national police, often criticised as corrupt and inept, have made great strides in Lashkargah, where they man checkpoints throughout the city. Seen from a patrol through the town with British Jackal armored vehicles, business appeared to be thriving.
Traders sat behind piles of watermelons while the bazaar was packed with goods, ranging from fruit to bamboo cane and bird cages. Streets were thronged with vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and donkey-drawn carts.
Brtisih Prime Minister David Cameron said last week Britain would shrink its force in Afghanistan by some 900 troops to 9,000 by the end of 2012. Jackson said that reduction was feasible. (Reuters)