UK Hands Over Security Of Key Afghan City

British forces have handed over control of the city of Lashkar Gah to Afghan security forces.

The capital of Helmand province, where most of the 10,000 British troops stationed in Afghanistan are based, has long been a hotbed of insurgent activity.

Yet the transition of security responsibility to the Afghan army and police is seen as a key milestone on the road to a planned end to British involvement in combat operations by 2015.

Helmand's provincial governor Gulab Mangal said, while the sacrifices made by coalition forces will never be forgotten, the handover represents a proud moment for the people of Helmand.

He added: "Today sees the first area in Lashkar Gah transfer to the sons of Afghanistan, who have trained hard for this job and already fight bravely to provide security over many months in Lashkar Gah, defeating the enemy everywhere."

Only central Lashkar Gah has been handed over. International forces will remain in an advisory role, but still have responsibility for other parts of the city.

Sources indicate there is likely to be little change in the conditions on the ground, as Afghan forces have been operating in de facto control of the area for some time.

But it will prove the sternest test yet of the domestic police and army, their skills and their loyalties, in an area in which the insurgency is still keen to make its presence felt.

On Saturday, seven policemen were killed in an attack on a checkpoint. Just two days later, a British soldier was killed, with the suggestion he was shot by a man in an Afghan army uniform .

There are lingering concerns that, while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is hitting its own targets in training soldiers and police, the quality of those passing out is doubtful - and that the Taliban continues to infiltrate their ranks.

One former member of Britain's special forces, who had until recently been involved in training and mentoring the Afghans, said transition was achievable but a massive task in the timeframe given.

"There's no doubting the commitment of many of the guys we worked with," he said.

"But factor in the illiteracy, the drug abuse, the general culture clash between trainers and their pupils, and planning to have them in overall control by the end of 2014 seems naive.

"Across the board, they're just not up to it.

"And the fear is there will be more Isaf troops killed by guys in Afghan uniforms."

But Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox said: "The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have proven they are capable of delivering security to the local people of Lashkar Gah, and today's ceremony recognises this.

"The ANSF already provide security in Lashkar Gah and the capacity of local government is improving, both of which are allowing normal life to return to large areas of the municipality.

"All of this means we have a solid base to build on as we work with our Afghan and international partners towards full transition - security, governance and development - over the coming years."

However, a recent report from the Defence Select Committee warned that announcing and then sticking rigidly to a plan which would see most troops out by the end of 2014 would in fact aid the insurgency.

There has been a spike in the violence since the transition timetable was announced.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Although UK forces will no longer be in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015, we will continue to provide military and development assistance."

He added: "The UK and our Isaf partners remain committed to helping the Afghan government ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes an operating base for international terrorism."

With the long summer of fighting just beginning, there will be ample opportunity for the Afghan army and police to prove their worth - or otherwise.