LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (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 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