Shiite Muslims gathered in Kabul last week to celebrate Ashura, one of the holiest days on their religious calendar. Hundreds of shirtless men chanted and flogged themselves with chains tipped with knife-like shards of metal.
In the past, these public Shiite commemorations have become targets of the Taliban and other Islamist extremists. In 2011, a suicide bomber killed 56 Shiites marking Ashura. But this year, security was particularly tight.
Shopkeeper Noor Aga said the celebration was magnificent, and he felt safe.
“Security is better compared to previous years in Afghanistan, but we cannot say our country is fully secure,” he said through a translator. “There are provinces and cities that are very insecure.”
Wardak province, just southwest of Kabul, is one. Zalmai, a civil servant who uses only one name, said there’s no security there.
“I cannot go to my province because the roads are not safe,” he said in Dari.
Zalmai, like many Afghans, said he doesn’t think Afghan forces are ready to provide security without NATO support. And that support has been the subject of negotiations between U.S. and Afghan officials, who reached a compromise Tuesday on a security agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to stay in the country after 2014.
A special assembly of Afghan tribal and religious leaders convenes later this week to debate the agreement. If they reject it, it is likely that all U.S. and NATO troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year.
This year has been a test case for Afghan forces. NATO handed over security duties last spring just as the annual Taliban offensive began. It was a campaign intended to demoralize Afghan forces and undermine public confidence in the military and the government.
U.S. Maj. Gen. James McConville assumed command of NATO forces in the east just as that spring offensive began.
“What I was concerned about as we came in, at least I was watching for, is as we brought our soldiers down, could the Afghans hold?” McConville said.
He says Afghan forces did hold their ground this year — but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“They’re not winning by enough that the enemy is willing to stop fighting yet,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, head of operations in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, says Taliban fighters did not achieve their goals during this year’s fighting season.
But, he says, Afghan forces still need help with logistics and air power, as well as continued training. That training will end next year unless there is a security agreement with the U.S.
The Taliban remain deeply entrenched in parts of the south and east. Taliban fighters carried out several high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere this year, including some areas that had been considered secure. The militants killed thousands of civilians, soldiers and police officers, and they assassinated a popular provincial governor.
Historically, Taliban attacks drop significantly in the winter, but with presidential elections scheduled next spring, Taliban leaders have vowed to keep up the fight to prevent the vote.
“We have an operational plan for fall and winter in preparation for the elections,” Aman said.
McConville said he hopes there will be enough of a lull this winter to carry out training of Afghan forces designed to lower their casualty rate, which NATO officials have called unsustainable.
During peak fighting this past summer, as many as 100 Afghan soldiers and policemen were dying each week. NATO has lost fewer than 200 troops all year.
McConville says the Afghans are particularly vulnerable to roadside bombs and traffic accidents, and they still need medical training.
“During the winter, we want to give them an opportunity to train on those things, and I’ve kept additional forces here to make that happen,” he said.
But many of those forces are scheduled to pull out by February, and that will put even more pressure on an Afghan military that is still learning how to sustain itself.