MEHTERLAM, Afghanistan (AP) — NATO handed over responsibility for the security of the capital of an eastern province to Afghan forces Tuesday, the latest step in a transition process that will lead to the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
The U.S.-led coalition has started a process of transferring security in parts of the country where they feel Afghan forces are strong enough to take control, although so far that largely has been restricted to provincial capitals, as much of the country remains lawless and unstable after a decade of war.
U.S. forces turned over control of Mehterlam, the capital of Laghman province, but they’ll retain responsibility for the other areas in the predominantly Pashtun province that remain under the influence of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
NATO officials said the handover sends a powerful signal that progress is being made.
“Above all, it is a tangible demonstration to the Afghan people of the growing capacity of this government and its increasing ability to improve citizens’ lives,” said Lt. Gen. James Bucknall, deputy commander of coalition forces.
Mehterlam is one of seven areas being transferred to the Afghan government this month, the first phase in a 3½-year plan that eventually will see the entire country under Afghan control.
On Sunday, the peaceful province of Bamiyan was handed over, while the transition process has begun in northern Panjshir. The two, which have seen little violence, are the only entire provinces to be handed over. The other provincial capitals in line to be transferred are Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west and Mazer-e-Sharif in the north. Afghan forces also will take control of all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district.
Violence has increased around the country since President Hamid Karzai announced on March 22 that government forces would take control of the seven areas.
In the latest example, seven police officers were killed Monday at a checkpoint near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, which is among those slated to be handed over this month. Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said one of their colleagues killed them, then escaped in a police vehicle loaded with weapons.
Much of the violence can be attributed to efforts by the Taliban to take back control of territory they lost to NATO and U.S. forces over the winter, but attacks also have spread to the east and along provinces that border Pakistan, where insurgents retain safe havens.
In April, an attack in Mazar-i-Sharif killed 11 people — including seven foreign U.N. employees. Kabul also has experienced a rash of attacks, including the killing earlier this week of Jan Mohammad Khan, a close aide to Mr. Karzai and a former governor of Uruzgan province.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Kabul for a very short visit to pay his condolences to Mr. Karzai for the loss of his half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was assassinated last week in the southern city of Kandahar. A statement from Mr. Karzai’s office said they also spoke about bilateral issues.
Ashraf Ghani, a government official who is leading the transition effort, acknowledged that the security situation in the east had deteriorated even as it improved in the south.
“We acknowledge that eastern Afghanistan has become insecure,” Mr. Ghani said. But he stressed the importance of continuing the handover process, saying the persistent violence does not mean it should not be attempted in safe places.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Monday that militants are launching attacks in the seven transition areas to try to disrupt the transition process, but he insisted that insurgents have been driven out of their strongholds and the intimidation campaign does not mean they are regaining strength.