MEHTAR LAM // Nato troops are handing security over to Afghan forces in seven key areas across Afghanistan this week, but the transition has been marred by increasing violence.
On Sunday, Nato-led troops began officially transferring security to their Afghan counterparts for the first time since the US-led invasion 10 years ago.
In heavily secured, high-level gatherings in selected cities and provinces, the transfers marked the beginning of a transition that will see all Nato combat troops leave Afghanistan by 2014. Afghan troops will be left to lead the battle against Taliban insurgents after that.
But the fanfare has been tempered by a lack of confidence in the ability of Afghan security forces to halt Taliban attacks.
Underlining the concern, on Wednesday Taliban fighters launched an attack on a police station in Kandahar, in the south, and detonated a bicycle bomb in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is due to be turned over to Afghan forces tomorrow.
The attacks took place on the same day British troops were passing security command to Afghan forces in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
In addition to Lashkar Gah, security has already been transferred to Afghan forces in Bamyan province, Mehtar Lam city and Herat city. All of Panjshir province will transition on Sunday. Much of the transition has been confined to cities because security has deteriorated so badly in the rural areas.
The deputy commander of the Nato-led coalition in Afghanistan, the British Royal Marine Lieutenant Geneneral James Bucknall, said at Tuesday's ceremony in Mehtar Lam: "The beginning of the transition sends a powerful message to insurgents of the progress made in this country."
A city of just 112,000, Mehtar Lam, capital of Laghman province, is the only area in Afghanistan's east to be chosen for transition this year.
Laghman's director of women's affairs, Hanifa Sufi, said in Mehtar Lam: "I do not think Afghan troops can secure the city."
During the ceremony at the governor's compound, which was attended by top-level Afghan and US officials, Taliban insurgents fired two mortar shells that exploded nearby.
"You see," Mrs Sufi said, the insurgents "can fire their rockets close to the governor's house".
Preparing Afghan security forces to take the lead in securing the country is crucial for a successful Nato withdrawal.
There are some 130,000 foreign troops in the country, but at least 10,000 US troops will leave by the end of the year. About 33,000 US troops are scheduled to leave by September 2012.
There were 160,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) recruits in March 2011, with a goal to boost the force to 171,000 by October of this year, according to Nato figures.
However, violence is hitting record levels, according to the United Nations. In its mid-year report on civilian casualties, the UN said "the rising tide of violence and bloodshed in the first half of 2011 brought injury and death to Afghan civilians at levels without recorded precedent in the current armed conflict".
The UN has assigned most of the blame for this year's 1,462 civilian deaths on Taliban-led insurgents, charging that anti-government fighters sought to "demonstrate that Afghan security forces could not manage security on their own".
In Lashkar Gah, where observers have said the transition will be the most precarious, a tribal elder, Mahboob Khan, said the capital would be easy to secure, but he is worried about outlying districts.
"There are security checkpoints everywhere in our city, but still, two districts in Helmand are under the control of the Taliban," Mr Khan said. "Because transition is only taking place in the city, we are not worried now. But I think people will be worried when all of the foreign forces leave in 2014."
In Mehtar Lam, attacks have nearly doubled since 2009, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), an organisation that monitors security incidents for aid groups. Residents there have given mixed reactions to the news that their city would no longer be patrolled by US troops.
Hajji Ashuqullah, a pharmacist, wants Afghans to take control of their own country, but sees parallels between the situation now and when the Soviet Union began their withdrawal in 1989. Anti-Soviet Afghan fighters plunged the country into civil war when Russian troops withdrew and the weak, Soviet-backed government collapsed.
Mr Ashuqullah says the western-supported government of President Hamid Karzai is too feeble to prevent war if foreign troops leave.
"People weren't happy with the Russians," Mr Ashuqullah said, "but when they left, there was nothing but war. This is the exact same situation."
Others, though, were hopeful that the violence will decrease after Taliban fighters were deprived of their primary target: foreign troops.
In April, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan military uniform killed five US and four Afghan troops by detonating his explosives at a US base near Mehtar Lam.
Lotfullah Kawsari, a government development worker from Laghman, said it is irrelevant whether foreign troops leave the province. The Taliban will continue their attacks regardless, he said.
"I received two night letters from the Taliban just a few months ago, telling me to stop my work with the government," said Mr Kawsari, who is also from the Alingar district.
"I live 20 minutes from Mehtar Lam and my area is not safe. There is no army, there is no police. There is just Taliban day and night," he said. "And this will not change."