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.
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.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
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.
ANDREW ERICKSON: 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.
GULAB MANGAL: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: 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.
KARL EIKENBERRY: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CHATTERING)
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
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.
ABDUL QAYOUM: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.