Can Afghanistan keep out the Taliban? | | Al Jazeera

Can Afghanistan keep out the Taliban?

Ask Afghan security forces if they are ready to take charge of security and the answer is always the same: not without better equipment.

    Ask Afghan army and police commanders from Kandahar to Bamyan if they are ready to take charge of security in their own province and the answer is always the same: not without better equipment and the support of a proper Afghan airforce.
    Bamyan is on the list of provinces first for transition that president Hamid Karzai will announce on Tuesday. The colonel in charge of recruitment in this, the country's most peaceful province, told me they had little to defend themselves with should fighters, well entrenched in neighbouring provinces, decide to cross the border.
    Mark Sedwill, NATO's civilian representative here, had talked about concerns that those first for transition would get an instant bull's eye on the province. Where better to strike than an area the coalition has hailed a security success?
    Also thought to be on the list are much of Kabul province, Panjshir province, and the provincial capitals of Herat in the west, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Lashkar Gah in the south. The police commander in Herat chimes with his military colleagues elsewhere. He told me late last year that his officers were doing the work of soldiers without the right tools for the job. 
    Karzai's timetable
    President Karzai has set a timetable of two months for these first provinces to make the switch with the rest of the country following suit by 2014. Down in the Zharay district in Kandahar province, where Afghan commanders are not predicting transition until the end of that timeline, the lack of equipment, including ammunition, is more immediate. Afghan soldiers were proud to show me their RPG launcher but not so proud that they had just two grenades for it. 
    Contact with the Taliban is almost a daily ritual here. One attack on a joint Afghan-US patrol that was guarding a work project just off Highway One, the main route running from Kabul to Kandahar and beyond, left an ISAF soldier badly injured. We witnessed eight ISAF helicopters in the skies above either strafing the area with gunfire or picking up the casualties. The Taliban stages attacks in groups of two or three fighters. The ISAF response was with millions of dollars worth of aircraft. The Afghan army knows when its foreign backers pack up and leave that immediate aerial protection goes with them. 
    The Afghan commanders here know they're playing a difficult balancing act. They need the backing of ISAF to give them any kind of secure footing in what is still Taliban territory. And they make good use of it. In Zharay they suggested to their American counterparts that they should put a combat outpost at Sablaghay, a small hill in the west of Zharay that the Mujahideen used to fend off the Soviets in the 1980s. Both forces are using the post to reach out to local people. But the Afghans know they need to distance themselves in the locals' eyes if they're to be trusted in the future when they finally take control here. 
    One soldier sounded a note of caution on the eve of Karzai's transition speech for the current Afghan government and its American backers: "Whichever government is in charge the army will back it. If it's Karzai who is the president or Mullah Omar or anyone else the army will be disciplined." 
    Not a resounding note of loyalty from president Karzai's army as it prepares to take control of this country. 


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