After a tough start, Nuristan province has passed the summer without further serious traumas. Still, all the pre-existing concerns about an insurgent takeover of the whole province are still there, just probably postponed to next year depending on the early onset of winter. In order to prevent this from happening, it is high time to develop a new, comprehensive strategy to enhance state presence in the forsaken province, and none but the Afghan government can work that out, according to AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini.
The start of summer 2011 caught most of those following – albeit from afar – events in Nuristan, with a sense of impending tragedy. Something irreversible seemed about to happen in the remote province. Insurgents had been for months in control of a district centre, Waygal, and were routinely threatening or briefly storming several others and even closing in onto the provincial capital, Parun. The government and ISAF attitude vis-à-vis this onslaught looked passive, to say the least (for further report see our previous blog here, and journalist colleagues’ here and here). Coupling the situation in Nuristan with the aggressive stance of the insurgency on other fronts, some colleagues could not resist drawing a parallel with the Tet Offensive (read here). But the insurgency in Afghanistan, at least that operating in Nuristan, is not the Vietcong and things follow their own, rather peculiar course.
June and the first part of July were, in fact, hectic months. In particular, the insurgents tried to establish a firmer control over their main border-crossing route into Nuristan through the Gawardesh valley (administratively split between Kamdesh and Kunar’s Nari district). The valley is accessible from the Pakistani side through a choice of comparatively easy mountain passes (some under 2700 meters), which moreover lie close to the major highway connecting Chitral with the rest of the country (to the top of the main pass is a nice twelve kilometres trek from National Highway 45). The use of the passes by insurgents has been reported for years, and consequently Gawardesh has been dotted by Afghan Border Police (ANBP) checkpoints. It is these checkpoints that were massively attacked and in some cases overran between 5 and 7 July by a mixed group of Afghan and Pakistani Taleban, before the border police supported by the Afghan army (ANA) managed to repel the attackers.
On the other hand, the undeclared siege of Parun extended into the summer, although direct attempts at storming the provincial capital did not occur after mid-June. The insurgents occasionally put more pressure on the beleaguered town by occupying positions on the main (and only) road connecting it with Asadabad in Kunar and with the outside world. The road was not reopened in any way to traffic until August when a security convoy bringing badly needed supplies made it to the city. Even after that, the road remained extremely vulnerable to insurgent activity, as it is to this day.
So, Nuristan came out of the summer more or less as it had entered it, an isolated province where the balance of forces is slowly but steadily turning against the government, and where nobody is actually governing. Only two major changes happened there in the course of this potentially fateful summer: in August the provincial governor was replaced and a fortnight ago a military operation was eventually mounted against insurgent-held Waygal.
But for the moment, these two events can only be interpreted as symptoms that the situation is unbearable and something needed be done on part of the Afghan authorities and the ISAF. Their overall value for improving the dire situation of Nuristan is far from clear.
The former governor, Jamaluddin Badr, had been often criticised for his excessive degree of absenteeism from his troubled seat, and this even by Nuristan’s standards (reportedly many of the provincial council members and other government officials spend most of their time in Kabul or Jalalabad). AAN was told, for example, that after the 2009 presidential elections, Governor Badr did not visit Nuristan for nine months. ‘Even when he was there, he would not move a step out of his compound in Parun’, a local official recalled. In the second half of August 2011, Badr was replaced by Tamim Nuristani who had already held the governorship from 2006 to 2008. Even though he ran restaurants in the US for most of the ‘1990s, Tamim Nuristani seems to be well connected with all the major jihadi political factions. He is the brother-in-law of the Jamiati, Massud Khalili, who was a close friend to the late Ahmad Shah Massud, has family relations with a local prominent Hezb-e Islami commander, and reportedly his early appointment was supported even by Sayyaf*.
Interviewed soon after his appointment, Tamim Nuristani sounded optimistic about his chances to improve the situation and declared his will to bring insurgent-controlled areas back under the government grasp without recourse to military action (read the Pajhwok article here). In fact, it seems his family connection with Abdul Ghaffur, a prominent Hezb commander of Kantiwa, was once sought by the government with a view to entice the latter to come in from the cold. According to a local analyst, Karzai approached Tamim Nuristani shortly before the parliamentary election last year and told him not to campaign, that he would be made governor instead, provided he was able to broker a deal with Abdul Ghaffur similar to that the government had with the other prominent Hezb commander in Nuristan, Mawlawi Sadeq, informally in control of Kamdesh district.
Deals under the table, even if successful, would not be a sufficient solution for Nuristan’s governance problems. The long years of absenteeism on the part of state institutions have left their mark. In the words of a Nuristani graduate, ‘the distance between the people and the government has increased’ and ‘the insurgents increasingly fill the gap’. Moreover, some locals interviewed were afraid that governors and other officials are forwarded from Kabul to the province to exploit the lucrative opportunities offered by their position on behalf of their political patrons (mainly reconstruction projects by the PRT, although they have dwindled in recent times, or timber and gems smuggling – and, of course, there is also the traffic of old Soviet weapons coming down from Badakhshan). In this way, Jamaluddin Badr was allegedly financing Sayyaf’s Da’wat-e Islami offices in all four provinces of the Eastern region with the profits made as governor.
As for the other ‘big event’: the re-capture of Waygal district, which since March had turned into an insurgent stronghold from where attacks on the surrounding areas were planned, did not bring any long-term effect. The joint Afghan-international operation that started on 20 September led to a brief occupation of the district centre, the death of a number of insurgents and their decamping to safer side valleys. But no government presence was re-established in Waygal. It is even reported that as soon as the Afghan and ISAF troops withdrew, the insurgents moved to occupy the district centre again, and eventually desisted only after the entreaties of locals. They, already uneasy about the massive influx of militants from other areas during the period of Taleban sway, were left to mourn 17 civilians killed during the military blitz (other sources say 19), among them Juma Gul Khan, a respected elder and former official of the Tahkim-e Solh commission (Mujaddidi’s early version of the High Peace Council) in Nuristan. Thus, in the best scenario, Waygal will remain a sort of no man’s land, due to the locals’ unwillingness to bear the brunt of further attacks from either side. This is no success for a government, of course.
The security situation remains then a priority for any realistic approach to the province. The scanty deployment of Afghan security forces is always highlighted when talking to locals, and there is no ANA presence except for that at the PRT base in Kalagosh of Nurgram district, oddly located in one far-off corner of the province and often termed by locals as being ‘in Laghman’. The police garrison of Parun was mainly left to defend itself against overwhelming numbers of insurgents through the summer and, if they managed to successfully, it is difficult to see how even smaller detachments in the districts could. Even when reinforcements were sent for specific operations like the relief of Parun in August or the recent capture of Waygal, they were withdrawn shortly after.
After reviewing the costs and benefits of their previous FOB (Forward Operation Base) experience in Nuristan and northern Kunar, Coalition troops ended up without a clear COIN strategy in the region. It seems now, after the announced shift to the East in ISAF’s strategic focus (read our previous blog here), that they will re-enter at least some of the abandoned areas, as they are already doing in the Pech valley on Nuristan’s outskirts. However, one wonders what their new course of action will be. Judging by the last months, ISAF will focus much more on providing air support for the ANA blitzes. Unfortunately, we have fresh evidence of the failures of such a strategy. In late May, when a large group of insurgents attacked Doab district centre, the US airstrikes wrought havoc on the amassed rebels, the police (both garrison and reinforcements), and the civilians alike, with estimates ranging from 150 to 250 victims, maybe a third of whom on the wrong side.** On 31 July, a helicopter strike meant to help the supply convoy headed for Parun hit an Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoint on the Kunar-Nuristan border, killing four. To add insult to injury, the surviving twelve ANP personnel were detained by the ISAF troops landing on the scene.
It is clear that if the human and natural terrain of Nuristan proved nightmarish for ground operations, it is as much difficult for air and commando warfare. Evidently, detailed intelligence and understanding of ‘what’s going on down there’ is destined to vanish in the fog of war once there are no boots on the ground and the quality of communication with the Afghan counterparts deteriorate.
A temptation could then be that of shaping the new COIN strategy much more on the role of local militias – sorry, Afghan Local Police (ALP) units. The diffused presence of armed locals defending main villages and roads would hinder insurgents’ build up and freedom of movement, and help government claims to be in control of the province. Probably not. This time it is not only about the standard concerns which ALP creates countrywide, although these are present as well. For example, would it be wise to arm different communities and to exploit rivalries in a notoriously clannish, fragmented and revenge-driven environment as Nuristan’s?*** And the degree of control the central government could be fairly expected to have on such units would be even lower than in other provinces. Moreover, in the case of Nuristan the ALP will simply not be enough. Judging by the sheer numbers the insurgents have been able to amass in the past, no ALP unit would stand a chance of fighting them back without massive air support from the Coalition and the subsequent, unavoidable casualties from ‘friendly fire’, ‘collateral damage’ or any way you choose to call it. The presence of even a few, selected US mentors embedded with the ALP for the sake of communication and intelligence, on the other hand, would irreparably spoil the efforts at removing from the local conflict the problematic presence of those ‘infidels, invaders, colonialists and crusaders’ – or more simply ‘foreigners’ – which is one of the main propaganda tool for the Taleban and was one of the rationales behind the US withdrawal from the area in 2009-2010.
In fact, many locals would maintain that it was shortly after the arrival of NATO troops, in 2004-2005, that the Taleban were able to make inroads in Nuristan for the first time. Paradoxically, Pakistani militant outfits likeLashkar-e Taiba or Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, now also engaged in the fight against the Afghan government and its international backers in Nuristan, could probably boast of older roots in the region than the Afghan Taleban, which never ruled Nuristan during their Emirate.****
So, if it is true that sending back US troops to garrison isolated FOBs in the middle of the Hindu Kush would not help (and it is improbable that it could be considered a viable option by the US government), what are the options left to avoid the gradual but inexorable slipping of Nuristan beyond the pale of possible claims of control by the Afghan government?
I happened to hear or read comments as of late of the peculiarities in Nuristani people’s history and character which make them impatient of external authorities and foreigners in general. It may well be so. But I could probably use similar arguments for at least ten other historical regions inside Afghanistan, arguing in support of exactly opposite thesis and outcomes. It is true, as all Nuristani interviewees said, that there is presently a huge gap between the government and the people of their valleys, but it stems more from the absence of organized state institutions for the last thirty years (including the predatory and ineffective behaviour of those half-present in the last decade) than from the fierce and independent customs of the ‘Kafirs’ of old.
The Afghan government should indeed multiply its efforts at establishing a stronger presence in the province, both in terms of security forces and of the quality of governance. Changing a governor or striking the insurgents here and there will not prove enough if mechanisms for co-opting the communities – on a firm basis, not through secret deals with commanders or with militia projects – and bringing back the idea of belonging to a country are not enabled. Examples? This year the ANA answered the repeated calls for help made by Nuristani notables saying it did not have the human potential to send reinforcements. Fine, then they should recruit new levees locally to be deployed in site after training, not under commanders-dominated ALP structures, but in a proper chain of command and control, and make sure they are not ghost soldiers or their salaries are not pocketed by corrupt officials or officers. At least it would bear more results than relying on NATO airstrikes, handing over to militias and wait until the locals are thoroughly antagonized.
Nuristan has also been plagued by the problem of an insufficient road network, not least this summer when Parun was almost starved by the insurgent blockade. The old project of a trans-Nuristan road, which got shipwrecked somewhere during the first governorship of Tamim Nuristani, could be resuscitated, and its construction assigned not to big firms with a political backing and economic interests in delaying their job, but to the local communities who are to benefit from both the work it creates and its completion. Providing them with the technologic expertise and means do not necessarily imply creating room for huge bribes and bringing in ‘infidel’ engineers. And, a truculent attitude by the insurgents against infrastructure works that are perceived as ‘useful’ and ‘national’ will probably show that indeed Nuristanis are intolerant also of this kind of foreign interference. More effectively so than asking old jihadi commanders to fight their former comrades for the sake of an ALP salary or the control over a few villages.
The solution thus sketched may sound very simple and dull, and I am sure that it would prove much more difficult and stimulating a job, if ever anybody in the Afghan government were to try an do it. Or Kabul can just sit and wait until Parun falls, and then split Nuristan on the administrative map between Laghman and Kunar, as it used to be before 1994, so that the government does not have to admit that a whole province was lost to the insurgency.
* Sayyaf’s influence in Nuristan’s politics seems to have become considerable in the last years, as Jamaluddin Badr is a member of his party, Da’wat-e Islami, and himself is said to entertain relations even with Nuristani senator Qari Qayum. Notwithstanding the connection between Badr and some religious militant outfits with a long history in Nuristan (many interviewees reported that one of his brothers enrolled with Lashkar-e Taiba and even went to fight in Kashmir), Sayyaf’s Wahhabi credentials and the existence of a minority of Nuristanis professing the Salafi tenets do not seem to have played any role in his interest for the province. In the weeks preceding the governor’s replacement, some Nuristani officials in Kabul were publicly supporting the candidacy of Eng. Amir Jan Nuristani, a former provincial deputy governor.
** Apparently, the insurgents there comprised large numbers of common villagers who had been gathered and spurred to engage in jihad for the occasion by a religious preacher in Mandol district. Also, according to a Nuristani source interviewed by AAN, half of them withdrew when they found out that in Doab there were no ‘kafirs’ to be fought, but only Afghan policemen.
*** Nuristan was not included in the list of provinces with established ALP projects released by the Ministry of Interior in July, but AAN heard of an ALP being formed in Wama in August – and of squabbles between the (former) governor and the chief of police of Nuristan to get hold of the budget for it. In the same district, fighting due to the rivalry between a local pro-government leader and insurgents from Gosalak, in the adjacent Chapadara district of Kunar, was reported in the first half of July. Armed and antagonized local communities, personal enmities between commanders, corrupted government officials: all the ingredients for an (unsuccessful) ALP program seem to be there.
**** Connections between pro-Pakistan Kashmiri militant outfits and some jihadi networks in Nuristan and Kunar date to the late 1980s. This could explain the outrage of Pakistani security forces at seeing cross-border attacks coming from militants based on the Afghan side in a quarter where they least expected that (see our previous blog here). The reaction of the Pakistani army has been all but helpful, consisting in a criminal shelling of Afghan territory which lasted for the best part of the summer, and has sporadically resumed of late. Another strange and still unclear incident was the reported inroad of Pakistani patrols into the Gawardesh valley on 24 September, where they told local villagers to leave as they were dwelling illegally on what was Pakistani territory
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020