Optimism at Security Transition in Afghan Southeast

In Zabul province, locals say the situation is better now that Afghan troops have replaced foreigners.
  • Afghan National Police unit inspected in Zabul province. Picture from 2011. (Photo: Isafmedia/Flickr)

One of the big uncertainties facing Afghanistan in 2014 is whether the national security forces will be able to cope once NATO-led troops complete their planned withdrawal.

In Zabul, a southeastern province bordering on Pakistan, officials say the handover from international to Afghan forces is working out well. They say the Afghan military is better attuned to local cultural sensibilities and has steered clear of the intrusive house searches that have caused so much anger.

The knock-on effects include greater public confidence in central government and in the preparations for presidential and provincial elections scheduled for early April.

United States troops have been in Zabul since 2003, and two years later they were joined by units from Romania, then a new NATO member. Last year, both contingents began winding down their presence. Some US personnel have stayed on to coordinate with and support the Afghan security forces, but otherwise the army and the national and local police forces are fully in charge.

According to Ghulam Faruq, an elected member of Zabul’s provincial assembly, things are getting better as a result.

“When the foreign forces were here, people were constantly complaining of threats and security problems, but now we aren’t hearing such complaints,” he told IWPR. “If there are any complaints, they are minimal. People are happy with [the handling of] security.”

Hajji Asadullah, wholesale trader who brings in goods and sells them to local shopkeepers in Zabul, says things have definitely improved on the roads.

“Security is much better than before. We used to have trouble with the foreigners’ convoys which would block up the roads, and the Taleban would mount attacks on them or plant roadside bombs. Many traders lost their goods in incidents of that kind. Now the problems have decreased,” he said.

In Zabul, as in other parts of Afghanistan most affected by the ongoing conflict, anger at civilian casualties and night-time house raids fueled considerable resentment of international forces, and by extension of their allies in the Kabul government.

Afghan opposition to night raids has been repeatedly cited by President Hamed Karzai as an obstacle to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement which will govern future ties with Washington. Although the agreement was approved by a specially convened nationwide assembly in November, and despite continuing US pressure to move ahead with it, Karzai has yet to sign it. (See also Afghans to Sign US Pact – But When?)

Karimullah, a resident of the Zabul’s Shahjoy district, said the deployment of Afghan forces had greatly improved things there.

“There used to be foreign forces in our district. People used to react, one way or another, against their nightly military operations. Either people supported the armed opponents [insurgents], or else at the very least, they were reluctant to back the government,” he recalled. “Now they’re happy with the Afghan security forces, which operate in consultation with local residents. Moreover, the Afghan forces are familiar with the cultural values of this area and they deal with people in a better manner, so the security situation has become very good.”

Nur Agha Nuri, a civil activist in the province’s administrative centre Qalat, agreed that things had got better.

“People were sick of the overnight military operations conducted by foreign forces, which didn’t care about their cultural traditions. These operations aren’t happening any more, and people are keen to support their own Afghan forces because they are happy with them,” he said.

The security chief for the province, Ghulam Sakhi Rugh Liwanai, says that as well as preventing Taleban attacks, the roll-out of national forces – augmented by better training and equipment – has reduced robbery, cross-border trafficking and other forms of crime in Zabul.

Local observers say recently-deployed frontier forces have succeeded in blocking cross-border incursions by Taleban members based in Pakistan. In the north of Zabul, however, one of the province’s 11 districts, Khak-e Afghan, has been under Taleban control for some years.

Liwanai says plans are in train to send Afghan troops into Khak-e Afghan to clear the insurgents out.

“We want to pave the way for the coming presidential and provincial council elections in terms of security, and also to allow people to access government services,” he said.

Election officials in Zabul say they are optimistic about the prospects for trouble-free elections in April.

“We have distributed voting cards within Zabul province with confidence, and we haven’t had a single fatality among our staff so far,” the head of the provincial branch of the Independent Election Commission, Hashim Durrani, told IWPR, noting also the security services’ pledge to regain control of Taleban-held areas.

Nuri acknowledged that there had been concerns about the capacity of Afghan forces to manage on their own, but these had proved unfounded.

“When the transition of responsibility for security began, people were worried that the Afghan security forces wouldn’t be able to defend the country alone, but I was optimistic as I knew our people would support them. Our forces are made up of Afghans, we speak each other’s language and we can resolve our problems,” he said.

Security chief Liwanai said public support was a major factor in stabilising the situation.

“You can’t impose security by brute force. We need to win hearts and minds and respect people’s values including their faith and traditions,” he said. As a result, the gulf between the government and its people is narrowing, as people are now content.”

Basharmal Nasiri, a writer and political commentator, sounded a note of caution while acknowledging the overall improvement. Like others interviewed for this article, he called for better training and equipment for the security forces.

“It is true the current security situation is a little better, but by the time the foreign forces leave [altogether] in 2014 and their military operations come to an end, there will be further security challenges,” he said. “There are also other challenging issues such as the lack of heavy artillery; segmentation and discrimination in the security forces along ethnic, linguistic and factional lines; and the increased penetration of these forces by insurgents.”

Niaz Mohammad Zeyarmal is an IWPR trainee journalist in Zabul province, Afghanistan.