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Old 10-24-2012, 07:45 AM
sfc_darrel sfc_darrel is offline
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Unhappy Fear Trails a Test of Afghan Pullout

Fear Trails a Test of Afghan Pullout


Yaroslav Trofimov for The Wall Street Journal
Many Bamiyan residents, such as potato farmer Abdel Razzaq, left, say they fear the rise of the Taliban.

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan—Taliban checkpoints have mushroomed on the main roads leading here as the insurgency spreads into Bamiyan—the province selected last year to kick off the U.S.-led coalition's handover to Afghan security control because it was deemed the country's safest.

With insurgents and bandits openly roaming Bamiyan's remote districts and the Taliban blowing up food and fuel trucks on the road to Kabul, many residents here increasingly fear they will be overrun once the last coalition base in the province closes in April.

"Right over these mountains, they are waiting to launch rockets at us as soon as the foreign forces leave," said Ali Hekmat, dean of Bamiyan University's Education Department, pointing at the pink-hued cliffs ringing the provincial capital. "It is very easy to destabilize this province."

What happens here is a portent of things to come in the rest of Afghanistan, as the U.S. winds down its longest foreign war. The U.S.-led coalition began transferring security responsibility over provinces and districts to Afghan security forces in mid-2011. The entire country is slated to be handed over by 2014, the year when the coalition's military mandate ends.

President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, when asked during Monday's presidential debate what they would do if the Afghans were unable to handle their own security by then, both reiterated their commitment to a 2014 withdrawal.

The coalition says the transition is progressing well, with three-quarters of the country's population already living under Afghan security control. The handover continues though the Taliban-led insurgency shows no sign of being defeated. In September, according to coalition statistics released Tuesday, the number of insurgents attacks was 1% higher than in September 2011.

Bamiyan isn't the only "transitioned" part of the country facing challenges from the Taliban. In the western province of Herat, 10 Afghan troops, including a district police chief, were killed in a Taliban ambush on Monday.
Bamiyan was selected by the Afghan government and the coalition as a pioneer of the transition because little Taliban activity occurred here since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The province is populated mostly by the Hazara ethnic minority, which was severely persecuted under Taliban rule and has little sympathy for the insurgency.

As part of the U.S.-led coalition, New Zealand's troops have been in charge of security in Bamiyan since 2003. New Zealand forces have already shut down their outlying combat outposts, concentrating the remaining 140 troops at the main camp in the Bamiyan airport. All of the coalition forces are slated to leave Bamiyan by April.

Just before these outposts were closed, five New Zealand soldiers were killed in two separate insurgent attacks in August, the country's highest combat toll since the Vietnam War. By comparison, only one New Zealand soldier died in combat in Bamiyan in the previous eight years.

With troops badly needed in the Taliban heartland to the south, there is no Afghan army presence in Bamiyan. Security in the province of 450,000 people is now largely in the hands of an underequipped police force of some 800 men that has repeatedly come under attack. Six policemen were killed in a roadside bombing in July.

In the past, the Taliban committed some of their worst atrocities in Bamiyan. Truck driver Mohammed Zaman, who hauls Bamiyan's potato crop on the perilous 150-mile road to Kabul, said his parents and brother were beheaded when the Taliban first took over the province in 1998 and began carrying out reprisals that killed hundreds of Hazaras.

In March 2001, the Taliban caused international outrage by blowing up Bamiyan's two giant Buddha statues, carved 15 centuries ago into the mountain facing the provincial capital.

These days, the province increasingly feels under siege because of Taliban control of the roads leading here. Bamiyan Gov. Habiba Sarabi said she relies on United Nations planes when she visits the central government in Kabul because it is too dangerous to drive. A convoy of the Afghan vice president's bodyguards was ambushed on the road to Kabul two weeks ago.

Mr. Zaman, the Hazara truck driver, grew a bushy, Taliban-style beard, reckoning he might fool the insurgents into mistaking him for one of their own on the road to Kabul. "My beard is my only hope," the 48-year-old said sheepishly. "I am 100% afraid."

When the transition was first announced in early 2011, the central Afghan government and the coalition commander at the time, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, promised to strengthen Bamiyan's security forces with more men and equipment.

Only a few old unarmored Humvees have arrived since then. The province's police numbers were cut by Kabul in recent months, said Gov. Sarabi. The government has yet to fulfill her request to deploy a well-equipped quick-reaction force. "They made promises—but then nothing happened," she complained.

In the 1990s, she added, the West abandoned Afghanistan, pushing the country into a civil war. "We hope that period doesn't repeat itself," she said, "But if it does, it would mean that the international community doesn't care about humanity, but is only interested in their own strategic interests."

Kabul plans to send a quick-reaction company to Bamiyan before the spring, and aims to increase the size of the local police force later next year, said Sediq Sediqi, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Kabul.

Lt. Col. Sholto Stephens, the New Zealand forces' commander in Bamiyan, said he understands that there is some apprehension among the locals about the coalition's planned withdrawal. Yet, he argued, the majority of the province's residents are optimistic about the future.

"People realize that there is light at the end of the tunnel," Col. Stephens said. "The local police force are already operating in a very capable and independent manner….That is another good indication that it is time for us to leave, and that they don't need any more support or assistance from us."

Bamiyan's police arsenal is largely limited to old Kalashnikov rifles. They travel in Ford Ranger pickup trucks that—unlike the New Zealanders' cannon-equipped armor—offer no protection from roadside bombs or gunfire. Once the New Zealand forces are gone, the police will no longer be able count on the coalition's medevac, air support or intelligence capabilities.

"We need armored vehicles, we need machine guns, we need heavy weapons and the budget for more people on the force," said Bamiyan police commander, Brig. Gen. Juma Geildy Yaardam. "If we get this, then we should be able to maintain security in the province."

Abdul Sabur, who co-manages with his Japanese wife Bamiyan's Silk Road hotel, a resort built in more optimistic times when tourists could drive here from Kabul for the weekend, fears that even a beefed-up police won't be enough. Many policemen in Bamiyan usually work second jobs running businesses or serving as security guards, Mr. Sabur said.

"If anyone comes here, the police just will rush to take off their uniforms as soon as possible and escape," he said.

Many locals had to flee to Iran or to the remote mountains when the Taliban occupied the province in the late 1990s, potato farmer Abdel Razzaq noted.

"The Taliban are strong, and they are the enemies of the Hazaras," he said as he packed the year's crop on his field, next to a rusting tank and several armored vehicles left over from the 1990s war. "Once the foreigners are gone, the Taliban will come here—and we will have to run away once again."

Echoes of the Vietnam War.
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