As part of my guest blogger series I have invited the departing Joint Head of the PRT Politics Team , Nick Baker to blog about the change in Governor to Helmand and his time in Lashkar Gah.
Last month Governor Mangal was replaced. This is the most significant political event in Helmand for the last four and a half years, since Mangal took office. So it’s a fascinating time to be leaving the province for my last time.
Mangal had many strengths, being charming, intelligent and an adept politician. He was able to connect with people and bridge divides in a way that previous Governors had failed. He made a point of engaging with tribes like the Ishaqzai that had been historically hostile to the Afghan Government as well as groups whose views he may not have shared. Being a socialist party member, he set up a shura to talk to the former mujahedeen. Their influence and connections are a major force behind the politics of the region.
Mangal was proud to take visitors around the province, doing the rounds of the chai houses, to show them how much had changed. First-time visitors often arrived with trepidation and in fear for their lives, such is the reputation the province has for Afghans and internationals alike. Almost all of them left surprised at what they had seen: a sense of the normality of the place.
Whilst Mangal will be a loss, it is in some ways good that he moves on now. By his own admission he had had enough and was ready for a change. Better for that change to happen now when a new Governor has time to settle into the job, rather than closer to the completion of transition in 2014, when there will be no safety net.
His successor, General Mohammed Naem Baluch, will take on a province that is significantly more stable than Mangal did. All Mangal was given when he arrived was a satellite phone. When Baluch arrives today Mangal will give him a thorough handover. But he will face big challenges. Most, if not all, of Mangal’s special advisors will leave with him. Although the civil servants should stay on, there will no doubt be some teething problems as the administration adapts to a new Governor.
On the security front, the surge is now over and there are far fewer US marines in Helmand than there were six months ago. This puts more responsibility on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which is the whole point of transition. But the 2014 Presidential election will put their ability to the test. So whether Baluch will be able to maintain both the governance and security gains of Mangal’s tenure is far from a given.
From a personal perspective it has been a privilege to see this change happen, and to work with such a fascinating range of people, both Afghan and international. So whilst my own experience of Helmand has had its challenges, it has also been thoroughly rewarding. And I will be keeping a close eye on how things unfold in this complicated corner of the world.