Afghanistan’s Too-Hasty Transition Plan

by Ahmad Majidyar

On Wednesday, Pres. Barack Obama held a video conference with Afghan president Hamid Karzai and welcomed the Afghan leader’s announcement of the first seven areas to transition to Afghan forces this July. The White House hopes that a smooth transition will help them to begin drawing down American forces this summer and end the foreign combat mission in the country by 2014.

Alas, this is wishful thinking. The troop withdrawal begins at a time when security in Afghanistan is worse than it has been in nine years. The Taliban are resurgent and have stepped up attacks as part of their spring offensive. On March 29, insurgents captured a district in eastern Nuristan Province, an area U.S. troops are turning over to the Afghan authorities. “The white flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is flying over the Want district center, while some policemen of the puppet administration flee toward the provincial capital after slight resistance,” boasted Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

Even more worrying, al-Qaeda is making a comeback in areas recently vacated by the coalition forces. On April 6, the Wall Street Journal reported that al-Qaeda had begun “setting up training camps, hideouts and operations bases” in northeastern Afghanistan after departure of U.S. forces from the areas. The same could happen in other regions in the south and east once U.S. and NATO forces hand over security to the Afghan authorities.

Afghan officials acknowledge that the transition is happening too soon. “Regrettably, neither our national army nor the national police have the ability to assume security responsibilities on their own if NATO leaves us. It [would be] good if the transition started in three years,” Interior Minister Bismillah Muhammadi told parliament’s lower house on Wednesday. The Afghan media and military experts echo similar concerns. Payam-e-Mojahed, a weekly opposition publication, described Karzai’s announcement for security transition as “hasty and ill-timed,” accusing Karzai of hastening pull-out of foreign troops because he “has given up the fight against the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami.”

The deadly riot in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif last week and the inability of the Afghan security forces to contain the violence cast further doubts over feasibility of the transition plan. Seven foreign U.N. workers and scores of Afghans were killed when a protest over the burning of the Koran by a U.S. pastor turned violent. The city is one of the seven areas that will transition to complete Afghan authority this July. Local authorities blamed “Taliban infiltrators” for the violence.

Another area chosen for transition is Lashkar Gah, the capital of restive Helmand Province in the south. Few believe the city is ready for transition. Two weeks ago, the Taliban forced cell phone providers to shut down. Insurgents are still present in neighboring districts; the province is home to 60 percent of the country’s opium production; and the local authority remains weak and corrupt.

Kabul and Washington are risking losing the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda by making decisions based on political considerations rather than security realities. As Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi earlier said, the deadlines “boost Taliban’s morale.”

— Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.