By Adrian Croft
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, July 11 (Reuters) - 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 Lashkar Gah 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.
Lashkar Gah, 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 Lashkar Gah 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 on 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
Lashkar Gah, where they man checkpoints throughout the city.
Seen from a patrol through the town with British Jackal
armoured 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.
Helmand, long a Taliban stronghold, is one of Afghanistan's
most violent provinces. Some 375 British soldiers have died in
Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand, since 2001, including 24 killed
in action so far this year.
But Jackson said in the three central districts of Helmand
where British forces are deployed "this year is progressing
substantially better than in previous fighting seasons".
The annual Taliban offensive "hasn't happened to the same
extent as we expected" and fewer fighters appeared to have
infiltrated the British-patrolled area of Helmand, he said.
"We've certainly seen less of the more important commanders
coming in. I'm not quite sure why that is.
"It's either because they feel scared that if they do come
in they will be killed ... or it's because they feel that they
simply can't operate in the area that they find themselves in."
The number of "significant acts" -- bomb blasts or Taliban
attacks -- is down sharply on last year in the British area of
operations but is still running at a rate of about 90 per week,
according to military sources.
And the level of security varies across the three districts.
While Jackson considers the town of Lashkar Gah completely under
Afghan government control, the same cannot be said for northern
Nad Ali and Nahr-e Saraj districts.
Leaders of some of the NATO nations contributing troops to
Afghanistan are starting to bank some of the gains they believe
transition will bring in reducing the need for foreign troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama said last month he would
withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the summer of
2012, rolling back the "surge" credited with securing gains
against the Taliban.
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.
"If the security situation continues to improve at the
trajectory that it is at the moment, then by the end of next
year we can readily lose 500 soldiers, but we will keep the
situation under constant review."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
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