Fears of Violence in Afghan Takeover

'There will be targeted killings,' says man marked for death by Taliban.

ByABC News
July 19, 2011, 10:19 AM

July 19, 2011 <br/>MEHTERLAM, Afghanistan &#151; -- Nimat Ullah Rekazai is counting his days.

The 43-year-old stands behind his desk in the eastern Afghan city of Mehterlam, holding a letter. It is signed by the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan -- better known as the Taliban. Unless he abandons his U.S.-funded project teaching women how to use computers, the letter warns, the Taliban will kill him. On August 20. He is not sure why they chose that date, but he is sure they are serious.

"When they say something, they follow through," he says, sunglasses covering the eyes he lost while fighting the Soviets. "Whatever they decide to do, they can do it."

Today, in a ceremony kept secret from the public, the United States officially handed over security of Mehterlam to Afghan security forces. Police feared the event would be attacked, so they shut down the area completely. (And during the ceremony, two rockets fell just outside the city.) The normally busy provincial capital of more than 100,000 became a ghost town. The only vehicles allowed in past razor-wire checkpoints were American armored trucks and Ford Rangers belonging to the Afghan army and police.

Rekazai fears the kinds of threats he has received will only increase as the police take responsibility for security.

"There will be a lot of phone calls and intimidating letters," he says. "Kidnapping will increase ... and there will be targeted killings."

The United States' slow withdrawal from Afghanistan is dependent on cities like Mehterlam being able to secure themselves. Already, some U.S. soldiers have been withdrawn from Laghman province, of which Mehterlam is the capital. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai's aides fear Mehterlam is the most fragile of the seven areas earmarked for transition this week. And -- while it's not a universal sentiment -- many Afghan and U.S. officials in the city say that the police are so badly underequipped and the justice system so corrupt, there is no guarantee the Afghans can provide the rule of law themselves.

ABC News spent six days in Mehterlam ahead of today's transition ceremony, speaking with dozens of Afghan and American officials, including Afghan police and army commanders and American officers based in the Provincial Reconstruction Team base inside the city.

The police, who have primary responsibility for security in the city, are motivated but outmatched. There are only a few dozen officers patrolling the city. That would be like asking the New Orleans Police Department to maintain security with fewer than 100 cops -- and the NOPD doesn't have to worry about militants coming in from nearby Pakistan, which according to Afghan officials, is the main threat here. Mehterlam police do not patrol with armored trucks, even though they are sometimes targeted with IEDs. And they do not have bulletproof vests they can wear over their uniforms, even though they have asked their government for them.

Their shortcomings are compounded by endemic corruption that Afghan and U.S. officials admit runs through the justice system. Police commanders complain that even when they do make arrests, there is no guarantee the arrested will be punished or remain in prison. Criminals and insurgents have managed to buy or threaten their way to freedom, according to two Afghan officials and two U.S. officials. Even the son of a Taliban commander was freed, according to a U.S. military official, after his father paid or threatened -- or both -- judges who were supposed to sentence him.

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Some Afghan and U.S. officials based in Mehterlam suggest that picture is too negative. They admit the police and justice system are far from perfect, but they have made positive strides.

"This is the hope of the Afghan people," Laghman's young but respected governor, Iqbal Azizi, said at the transition ceremony today. "To have their brothers leading them."

But security begins with the police, and 40-year-old Shah Mehmood, the captain of the city's precinct, admits there are security gaps because he is short staffed.

"The biggest challenge is a lack of personnel," he says. "We don't have enough people."

'This Is The Kind of Life We're Living'

Senior Afghan officials say that within two months, Mehterlam should have more police and its police should have more equipment. And they point out that the Afghan Army is always on standby to help inside the city, if needed. A combined police/army/intelligence service Quick Reaction Force has been recently trained, and is on hair-trigger alert, 24 hours per day.

But the officials acknowledge that justice in the city is fragile. They ask for patience.

"In the rule of law sector, we have a very long way to go," Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a Karzai advisor who designed the transition process, acknowledged today. "But if I may remind you, the police in New York City at the turn of the 20th century was one of the most corrupt. … Police corruption I think is a universal problem. It takes a long time and we have to be realistic to be able to deal with this."

Rekazai fears he may not have that much time. He will continue teaching girls computer skills, in part because he can't afford to lose the contract, in part because he "hopes God's will is different than the Taliban's will." But he admits his mind is always anxious, and that he is "counting his days."

"This is the kind of life we're living," he says. "Full of fear."

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