The start of the Taleban spring offensive is not stopping preparations that are on track for the announced transfer of security to Afghan forces, beginning in July. In the Eastern region, however, besides the scheduled transition in Mehtarlam district of Laghman, a much more problematic development can be witnessed, as US troops that abandon positions in Nuristan and Kunar are not replaced by their Afghan counterparts, but rather by insurgents. And in what sounds like doctoring the list of enteqal areas, a notoriously insurgency-affected area of Mehtarlam has been declared a new district, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini reports.
When back in November rumours were heard that Laghman was among the first provinces likely to experience a security transition to the Afghan forces, even if only in the second batch of places scheduled for 2011 (see our previous blog here), many eyebrows were raised. Eventually, after President Karzai’s Nawruz speech, the news proved not to be true only in parts: Laghman would not be in the second batch, but in the first one instead, to happen in July; and not the whole province is to be transferred, but just its capital, Mehtarlam.
The short drive which separates Mehtarlam from the lively traffic on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway is a pleasant one, especially around this time of year when lower Laghman is tropically lush but not as hot as Nangrahar. It also allows to notice the regular presence of relaxed though well-manned ANA checkpoints. As a first omen of transition to come, US troops from the local PRT are rarely seen patrolling the area, and we were not among the lucky ones who spotted them during our visits. (AAN anyway did its part for the sake of enteqal in Laghman: by giving a lift to an Afghan soldier – definitely from the infantry – who, coming back from leave, was walking his way to Mehtarlam under the hot Laghman sun).
‘Mehtarlam is already de facto transitioned’ – these words of US officers at the PRT echoed those of the head of Laghman provincial council, Qari Mir Hatem. He sounded self-confident when he added that ‘what people want here is just security, and thanks God we are able to achieve it through our own security forces’. Inquiring about the security situation in areas outside the provincial centre, it was evident even before going there that the name of one particular area was on everybody’s lips, much more than the insurgency-ridden but removed Dawlat Shah district, or even the problematic and close by Alishing and Alingar: Badpakh. The Badpakh area, lying around fifty kilometers west of Mehtarlam, has always been part of the provincial capital’s district; only since a few weeks it has become a woleswali in its own right, with an administration in process of formation and an interim district governor appointed.
Notwithstanding claims that the creation of a new district in Badpakh was programmed before the transition in Mehtarlam was decided, it is difficult not to link the step to the need of detaching an area which, because of its volatility, has been in many occasions referred to – AAN witness – as ‘the Afghan Waziristan’.
In fact, Badpakh has been virtually out of government control for years, and had become a major stop for insurgents – foreigners and Afghans alike – on their route from the Eastern region to Kabul and Kapisa (right beyond the mountains lies the notorious Uzbin valley of Sarobi, the latter another district exempted from the planned security hand-over of the rest of Kabul province). It was also the scene of some of the worst fighting last August, when an ANA-only military operation almost ended in disaster in front of the insurgents’ resiliency; the area has been historically a stronghold of Hezb-e Islami, who still seems to constitute the bulk of the local fighters.
The US troops who then had to rescue the Afghan soldiers, took some precautions before moving into the area in early April this year. Not only the operation involved what an informed person declared was the ‘largest airborne operation effected by the US Army since WWII’, but it was preceded by an Afghan-led ‘pre-clearance’, that is, a series of meetings held between the Laghman governor’s staff and Badpakh local elders. These meetings not only ensured the elders’ cooperation and their active participation in a series of jirgas which followed the military deployment, but also had a salutary effect on the insurgents, who went either under cover or across the mountains, so that ‘no fire was shot’. And this is not a mean feat in Waziristan (*).
The creation of a new district in the area is universally lauded as a positive development, capable of addressing the grievances of locals who had been left out of development and services, and to conciliate at least part of the local insurgents by co-opting them into the new administration, including into Afghan Local Police units to be formed (not forgetting a big project to bring electricity from Sarobi to most of the Eastern region which got stuck in Badpakh due to insecurity and should now be resumed). This should allow the Afghan security forces in Mehtarlam, once they are left to their own, to concentrate their efforts in securing the major road leading to the Jalalabad-Kabul highway, and on the other problematic area left inside the boundary of the district, the cluster of villages right outside the town centre in the direction of Alingar, especially Chelmatai, where in mid-March an IED took the life of a provincial council member.
It is from that quarter, Alingar, that the head of the council expects more trouble to come in the next weeks. But the situation will be influenced by developments which go beyond the transition in tiny Mehtarlam district. Beyond Alingar, in fact, lies Nuristan.
If the enteqal in Mehtarlam looks more promising than imagined – with the Badpakh arrangement and thanks to the fact that the PRT, although dealing only with other districts of the province from July on, will remain located inside the city – the situation in the rest of the Eastern region does quickly dispel reasons for optimism. In Nuristan, in particular, and in increasingly larger swaths of Kunar, a completely different kind of ‘transition’ is taking place.
Recently, Nuristan has been de facto abandoned by US troops, completing a process started in 2009. Even the last sign of US presence, the PRT at Kalagosh in Nurgram district, experienced a reduction of the foreign contingent a couple of months ago: apparently, only some mentors and trainers remained with the ANA. Even if the US troops are still occasionally carrying out operations inside the province, the insurgents are far more active in taking actual possession of the communication axis and, often, of whole districts.
This is what happened for example in Waygal, where the district centre is in the hands of the insurgents since the 29 March. An attack on Barg-e Matal – first briefly overrun in 2009, then twice occupied by the Taleban last year – followed quite naturally and would have witnessed the first occupation of the district for 2011, was it not for a rushed ISAF/ANA effort to save the garrison by striking the insurgents’ build-up(**). The situation is now also critical in Wana district, where insurgents have attacked ANP security posts close to the centre since the first days of May. Insurgents already control parts of two other districts, Mandol and Doab, while the provincial capital’s district, Parun, is reportedly under attack at the time of writing. ANP is often heavily outnumbered in these encounters and an evacuation of more district centres and police stations in face of sustained attacks cannot be ruled out.
The situation in adjacent Kunar is likewise rapidly deteriorating after the withdrawal of some US outposts there. Withdrawal from the embattled Korengal in 2010 was followed in early March by the ‘transition’ of security to ANA in Manogai (central Pech valley), one area not announced by Karzai’s enteqal speech in March. Unfortunately, some of the US Forward Operation Bases (FOBs) in the area ended up not being controlled by the Afghan troops, but rather simply abandoned and looted by the insurgents, who of course exploited at its best the media impact of videos showing the Emirate flag being raised over the ruins of an US base. The re-deployment of US troops in Watapur district looks like a move to lock the door accessing to the main Kunar valley and the provincial capital Asadabad. This however, in case the insurgents are allowed to strengthen their presence in Chapadara and Manogai, will not hinder their ability to cross the mountains into other districts of lower Kunar and even in Dara-e Nur of Nangrahar. And, at the same time, it means forsaking Nuristan as a whole.
The US withdrawal from the inner districts of Kunar seems in line with the proposals of a detailed study on counterinsurgency in Kunar and Nuristan by the Institute for the Study of War (click for it here), which, already in mid-2009, suggested to leave the irreducibly hostile Pech valley and concentrate instead on the strategic and more friendly lower Kunar. While correctly assessing that in such secluded communities it was the mere presence of foreign troops that contributed to fuelling the insurgency, the report maintained – talking about Korengal – that ‘the resistance in the area is confined to locals in the valley. It does not accelerate the insurgency beyond the valley.’
This has proven to be incorrect, as the insurgency in the whole region has much to gain from the absence of checks to its mobility. Others analysts have even entertained the hope that the same locals who had opposed the presence of foreign troops would do the same with an increased – and suddenly superfluous – influx of foreign militants after the US withdrawal. It is probably early to judge the possibility of such a development, but while some instances of local intolerance of the militants’ excesses have been occasionally reported, the assumption tends to underestimate the symbolic appeal of jihad – especially a successful one – the pre-existing or always re-shaping ties between many local commanders and foreign militants (the Salafi network being particularly strong in Kunar) and the presence, in many Kunar districts, of Pashtun tribes who straddle both sides of the border that gives national identities a certain degree of ambiguity(***).
More significantly, it also overlooks a very simple reality, that of the dependence of local insurgents to outside economic support. In the words of a resident of Kunar: ‘Most of the authority and the decision-making are in the hands of the foreign Taleban, as it is them who have the money.’ If this applies to the militants, it could turn out to become true for the population more in general, especially in Nuristan, where most of the tenuous ties with the Afghan cities have been cut, or at least put under control by the insurgents (reportedly, on the main road to Waygal there are at least eight permanent insurgents checkpoints), and locals potentially risk to face alimentary crisis in case the roads are blocked.
That the Afghan government should be unable to turn the scale of the conflict militarily where the US has failed, appears quite logic. Recent moves by Kabul rather seem to be aimed at finding a suitable compromise to avoid a loss of authority tout court. In Kamdesh district, for example, a prominent Hezb-e Islami commander has been more or less officially appointed as district governor on behalf of the Afghan government. Given his past association with and personal knowledge of most of the local insurgents, he will probably be left in peace by them, while at the same time doing nothing to close one of the major infiltration routes from Pakistan, the Gawardesh valley, which also passes through his district. A similar attempt has been reportedly made by Karzai last summer with the other majorHezb-e Islami commander in Nuristan, this time in Kantiwa of Porun district, but apparently nothing came out of it (****).
If the absence of a strong state presence in Nuristan (governor and provincial council are out of the province most of the time, while ANA deployment is virtually non-existent) compels the government, the local inhabitants and police forces to come to terms with the insurgency, the latter seems to be bent to establish their writ there in a state-like form. Notwithstanding reports of increasing criminal activities as a result of state collapse and even of occasional infighting among different insurgent factions (Nuristan still features a significant presence of Hezb-e Islamiaffiliates, and is now crowded by many militant groups originating from Pakistan, together with the Afghan Taleban of course), the symbolic value of such a development is evident.
Undisputed control over large parts of an Afghan province responds to two strategic needs of the guerrilla: on one hand to show to the public opinion that they are capable of holding and controlling significant portions of territory, on the other to establish a safe base for further operations and to secure communication lines from the border up to the provinces adjacent to Kabul. There is no single route of movement for insurgents as of now, as they move to their destinations from different sanctuaries on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, but a look at the map shows how the ‘insurgency corridor’ often spoken of is definitely taking shape in the region.
In case that even Nurgram is to experience an ‘uncontrolled transition’ like that in Manogai, insurgents will be able to move unhindered from the Pakistani border to Alingar and Dawlat Shah of Laghman province, and from there into Kapisa and Kabul provinces. And in that case the establishment of districts controlled by ‘friendly insurgents’ – or by hastily reconciled ones, as it could still turn out to be the case in Badpakh – could not prove a serious buffer to avoid another escalation in the intensity of the conflict even in major cities.
(*) Even if no bullets were shot, a Nato airstrike killed two insurgents in Badpakh on 16 April; and while many interviewees drew a link between the lack of active resistance from the insurgents and the locals’ need to secure the poppy harvesting from violence, some did expect an increase of violence once the fighters who took refuge in nearby areas (Alishing, Tagab, Sarobi or Hesarak) start returning. Unless they are all willing and able to join the ALP, of course.
(**) Mawlana Fazlullah, a prominent leader of the Pakistani TNSM (the movement advocating establishment of Sharia that arose in the early 1990s in Swat, where it established de facto rule between 2007-2009), in particular seems to have a soft corner for Barg-e Matal. Since his flight from Swat after the Pakistani military operations of 2009, Fazlullah has been reported leading the three last attacks on the Afghan district, and even to have died there in one occasion. Rumours apart, the high numbers of Swatis among the foreign fighters there (in recent occasions Pakistani Taleban constituted the bulk of the fighters attacking Barg-e Matal) testifies to the truth of his involvement.
(***) The recent killing of Malik Zarin, a prominent ex-jihadi commander turned Karzai loyalist, offers a relevant example: originally from Asmar in Kunar, he had settled in Dir, Pakistan – where one of his sons is still working in the administration, and where he owned extensive tracts of land. His killing in a suicide attack in Asmar on 13 April, during a jirga between his tribe, the Mashwani, and the Salarzai, has been variously reported as the consequence of a personal enmity, or the work of insurgents aimed at disrupting his pro-government activities. It is also probable that his influence on both sides of the border at this critical stage had strained relationship with his former mentors inside the Pakistani intelligence service.
(****) A similar example could be that of the three Khugiani-inhabited districts of Nangrahar (Khugiani, Shirzad, Pachir wa Agam) where reportedly all the appointed district governors served in the same capacity, although in different districts of Nangrahar, during the Taleban time.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020