Fraught live TV debate on Afghan security transfer

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul

Image caption, Many present were fearful of foreign troops leaving

It is just before seven in the evening. A motley crowd of 150 Afghans has gathered at 1 TV's studio in central Kabul to witness history. They are waiting anxiously for a live televised debate, the first on the transition to full Afghan security control.

TV debates in this country are usually watched in the comfort of one's living room. But the fact that these people have travelled all the way to the studio on a harsh winter evening highlights the importance the transition holds in their lives, said Nasima, 32.

"We are lucky to be sitting here," Nasima, a mother of five, said.

She has a point - at least 50 others, who travelled from distant places to be part of the studio audience, were turned away as there was no space for them.

"The departure of the foreign forces is giving us hope as well as fear," Nasima added.

As the time approaches to go live, the air becomes tense.

Sami, the 28-year-old host of the Kabul Live Debate, has entered the TV studio. He is accompanied by the four distinguished guests.

Gen Murad Ali is the commander of the Afghan ground forces; Shanawaz Tanay is a former communist defence minister; Gen Hadi Khalid is a former deputy interior minister in charge of security; and Gen Jamal Abdul Nasir Sediqi is deputy interior minister in charge of planning and strategy.

'Taliban are our brothers'

Sami breaks the silence: "Are the Afghan forces ready to take over the security responsibilities?"

"Yes," Gen Ali replies emphatically, before going on to give his regards and those of his forces to the Afghan people and the nation.

But Sami is not satisfied. He asks the same question again. "Are the Afghan forces capable?"

As the debate moves on, Sami allows audience guests to raise their questions.

"You can't even secure the capital despite the presence of thousands of foreign forces. How will you secure the country when they leave?" asks a woman from the crowd.

But soon chaos ensues. Everyone has a question or two. And they all want to speak at the same time.

"The Taliban are our brothers. How come we accept foreigners but not the Taliban?" asks Azizullah Irfan.

His comment enrages several of the women participants.

"How can you call Taliban our brothers?" asks Khatera, a 39-year-old woman.

"They have no respect for anyone. They want war and not peace. What will be our future if they come back to power?"

Like most Afghan women, she is afraid that her freedom will be sacrificed once again if the Taliban are given any role in governing Afghanistan.

The crowd is suddenly divided into three groups - some for the Taliban, most against and others who can't seem to make up their minds.

Amid the din, Sami tries to grab the microphone from Azizullah. "Your time is up or we will have to cut your microphone connection."

"The Afghan forces have not been equipped adequately by the international forces," Shanawaz Tanay then says as soon as questions from the audience end.

"They are weak; they don't have the right kind of weapons, armoured cars or the air force."

Gen Khalid says Afghan forces could only succeed if there is good governance. "The Afghan government turned to the international community for governing the country. This should have been done by the Afghan government," he says.

"Afghanistan has natural resources, it earns revenues from the borders and friendly countries will help us fund our army," said the commander of the Afghan ground forces. "We are confident of this."

But Gen Khalid disagrees. "Grievances of the people and rampant corruption have to be addressed. The weak state of the Afghan forces is not that big a problem. The ultimate solution lies in good governance."

'Not ready'

The one-hour show is now about to conclude.

Sami wants to take an audience poll. "Are the Afghan forces ready to take over security responsibilities in 2014 or not?"

The result was out in a few seconds. More than 65% of those present said no.

Sami announces the outcome. Credits begin to roll and Afghanistan's first live TV debate ends.

I get a chance to speak to Sami after the show.

"What do you make of the audience poll?" I ask him.

"Everywhere I go and everyone I speak to says we are not ready yet for the takeover. But what worries them more is that once the foreign forces go home, Afghans would lose the freedoms they have gained over the past 10 years."

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