By Mohammad Stanekzai
LASHAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The governor of the western Afghan province of Farah resigned on Thursday after months of increased fighting that have fuelled protests by residents fearful that Taliban militants could threaten the provincial capital.
Mohammad Aref Shah Jahan blamed political interference and corruption among security forces in the province, which abuts the frontier with Iran in the far west of the country.
"I have resigned from my post because of the worsening security situation in Farah," he told reporters. He also cited "interference in my responsibilities from various individuals".
Although Afghan and U.S. military commanders have expressed growing optimism about battlefield successes against the Taliban, backed by increased American air strikes, the problems in Farah show how unstable security remains in many areas.
Farah, one of Afghanistan's poorest provinces, has seen months of fighting and accusations of collusion between some units in the police and the Taliban, spurred by cross-border smuggling and drug trafficking.
Jahan's resignation underscored how President Ashraf Ghani's government, engaged in an unrelated standoff with the powerful governor of Balkh province in the north, has struggled to maintain control in many areas outside the capital Kabul.
On Wednesday, hundreds of people took to the streets of Farah city, the provincial capital, setting fire to two police vehicles and protesting about the lack of security and demanding the provincial leadership resign.
"Farah has been suffering from a lot of internal issues for a long time," said Farid Bakhtawar, head of the provincial council. "Security forces are there but involved in corruption and selling their outposts, weapons and fuel to the Taliban."
Local officials have also accused neighbouring Iran, which the United States says is trying to extend its influence in western Afghanistan, of providing the insurgents with money and modern weapons and explosives.
TALIBAN THREAT "WAY OVERBLOWN"
However the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul, which is providing assistance and training to Afghan forces, said the threats by the Taliban to take over Farah province were "way overblown".
"Additional assets have deployed to the area in order to bolster security operations and drive out the Taliban," Resolute Support spokesman Captain Thomas Gresback said in an emailed statement. He said Afghan forces were in combat with the Taliban in Pusht-e Rod district outside Farah city.
"The ANDSF will not lose control of Farah to the Taliban and will do whatever it takes to hold this province," he said.
Security forces were rushed in to defend Fara city after it came close to being overrun last week but commanders say the immediate threat has since subsided.
Mohammad Naser Hedayat, commander of 207th Zafar Army Corps based in the neighbouring province of Herat, said three battalion-sized units combining army and police had been deployed to Farah to push the Taliban back.
"There is an ongoing operation in Farah and we understand there are problems we need to fix," he said.
However, many in the city fear it could still fall.
"Shops in the city were closed for days and there is still panic among the people that the Taliban are returning," said Haji Hashem, a car dealer. He said gunfire and explosions, though no longer so close, could still be heard outside Farah.
"The government here has lost its way and has no clue how to deal with the situation," he said.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Mark Heinrich)