MEHTERLAM, Afghanistan — As of this week, Afghan forces are in charge of security, replacing the Americans who still keep insurgents from swarming into this town through raids in the surrounding valleys of Laghman province.
The tenuous peace in Mehterlam shows the challenges Afghan authorities are facing as the U.S.-led coalition hands over responsibility for more of the country. The big question is whether Afghan forces are up to the job.
By the end of next week, seven spots on the Afghan map will officially be under Afghan control — a process that will continue until 2014, when the whole country will be in Afghan hands.
The first round of transition has so far been largely cosmetic, reflecting the worries over the readiness of Afghan forces. It's hard to point to any new responsibilities that Afghans are taking on. NATO troops are not moving out of bases in the transition areas, they'll just officially operate under Afghani oversight.
Many of the areas transitioning in this first group never had many NATO troops, such as Panjshir and Bamiyan provinces, along with the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west. The capital, Kabul, has nominally been operating under Afghan control for years. And the others — Lashkar Gah in the south and Mehterlam in the east — are still largely kept safe by international forces surrounding them.
Of those two, Mehterlam is the one that most concerns international and Afghan officials. While the city is relatively safe compared with much of eastern Afghanistan, it is surrounded by insurgent havens and there's very little local governance or security.
The city's police force has just a few dozen officers. The chief can request officers from other areas if needed, but even the province-wide force has fewer than 1,000 police, according to U.S. military trainers.
Officials involved in transition say this is beside the point — transition was never going to be easy and Mehterlam was picked because it was important not to leave eastern Afghanistan out of the process. Also, they needed preparation for the harder spots to come.