As coalition troops depart, an uncertain future in Lashkar Gah

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If you check out the above video clip, you’ll see Farzana Naz, a female singer with a large following in Afghanistan. She recently performed before more than 10,000 people in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

The concert was cited last week by Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the outgoing Marine commander in Regional Command-Southwest, as an example of progress in the war-torn region. The event was an obvious possible target for the Taliban, but was held without any major incidents, Mills said in an exclusive interview with Marine Corps Times. Better yet, that success occurred with Afghan security forces running the show, Mills said:

  They estimated the crowd at 15,000. I think it was probably 10, but regardless, it was a heck of a crowd. They were all having a good time, they had some women in the audience, young guys doing what they do at concerts – kind of goofing on each other – it was just a really positive experience. Once again, we were concerned about security and the Afghan police and army were in charge, and there were no incidents at all. It went on so well, in fact, they decided to repeat the event the following night, and there were no problems.

These are things that the insurgent wants to break up. These are things he despises, because it shows everything he is against. So, I think Lashkar Gah is in real good shape, and ready for the transition process, and I think, as you know, there are other places within the province – places like Nawa and Garmser – where the conditions are rapidly improving and getting ready.

The transition piece of Mills’ comment comes into play because Lashkar Gah has been selected to be one of the first areas of Afghanistan in which coalition troops will hand over control to Afghan forces. British troops currently oversee the area, which has been largely peaceful in recent months.

Things aren’t always smooth, however. While the concert was void of significant violence, there was a commotion because Naz, the singer, did not wear a headscarf and flashed her bare arms. Men rushed to the stage, and Afghan forces needed to keep them in check with batons raised, the BBC reported.

The story also notes that while they have improved, there are still large flaws in the Afghan police. They are still poorly supplied by their country, and smoke hashish at night, the BBC reported.

The concert in Lashkar Gah also has had ramifications. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai removed Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, Helmand province’s deputy governor, from office after tribal elders complained the performances were inappropriate, the BBC reported.

By many accounts, things have improved in Lashkar Gah. Public punishments and executions were held there only a few years ago in the same stadium in which the concert is held, for one. Mills called it “de facto transitioned” already in his interview with Marine Corps Times.

Still, it’ll be interesting to see how the transition goes. It’s just a few dozen miles from many former Taliban strongholds, including Sangin, where Marines expect to face more attacks this spring. If Lashkar Gah is considered a model community ready for transition, the next few months there bear watching for everyone concerned about events in southern Afghanistan.

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I'm a senior writer with Marine Corps Times, covering ground warfare, manpower, weapons acquisition and other beats. I embedded in Afghanistan in spring 2010, and plan to return at least once in 2011.

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