Taliban Take Over Afghan Province
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
30 October, 2009
ISLAMABAD - The United States has withdrawn its troops from its four key bases in Nuristan, on the border with Pakistan, leaving the northeastern province as a safe haven for the Taliban-led insurgency to orchestrate its regional battles.
The US has retained some forces in Nuristan's capital, Parun, to provide security for the governor and government facilities. The American position concerning the withdrawal is that due to winter conditions, supply arteries are choked, making it difficult to keep forces in remote areas. The US has pulled out from some areas in the past, but never from all four main bases.
The move by the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChystal, follows the death on October 3 of eight US soldiers as well as a number of Afghan National Army forces when their outpost in Kamdesh was attacked by more than 300 militants. On July 13, 2008, nine American soldiers were killed when their outpost in Wanat was attacked by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Nuristan is strategically located in the Hindu Kush mountains, the vast and rugged region in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his associates are believed to hide.
The province is now under the effective control of the network belonging to Qari Ziaur Rahman, a Taliban commander with strong ties to Bin Laden. This makes Nuristan the first Afghan province to be controlled by a network inspired by al-Qaeda.
In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, a militant linked to Rahman said that now that they had control of Nuristan, the militants are "marching towards Mohmand and Bajaur to help their fellow Taliban fighting against Pakistani troops", referring to two tribal agencies across the border.
Rahman is not the son of a legendary mujahideen commander, but of a cleric named Maulana Dilbar. His ties do not lie with Pakistan, but with Bin Laden, having instructed him in the lessons of the Prophet Mohammed's life.
Ziaur, in his early thirties, was raised in the camps of Arab militants, who instilled in him the passion to fight against the Americans - not only in Afghanistan, but across the globe. Ziaur did not get his command as any hereditary right. First he had to prove himself on the battlefield, which he did by taking on US troops in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. He was the first to mount operations against the US in the Karghal district of Kunar and he engineered encounters in Nuristan. (See A fighter and a financier Asia Times Online, May 23, 2008.)
Mountainous Nuristan - and adjoining Kunar province and the Mohmand and Bajaur tribal areas - provide a natural labyrinth, ideal for insurgents to establish safe heavens. The majority of Nuristan's people adhere to the strict Salafi school of thought. As a result, Arab fighters, who are mostly Salafis, have always been drawn to the area. This happened during the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, when a virtually autonomous Salafi "kingdom" was established with aid from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This was later eliminated by the Taliban.
In recent years, several top al-Qaeda leaders have been spotted in the area, including al-Qaeda deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, who escaped two missile attacks by US Predator drones. During the Soviet invasion, Nuristan was one of the few areas of the country that was never under occupation. Since the US-led invasion of 2001, it, along with Kunar, has been a hot-bed of activity.
The Taliban's control of Nuristan coincides with the big Pakistani military operation in the South Waziristan tribal area against the al-Qaeda-backed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has been underway for the past two weeks. As the militant who spoke to Asia Times Online said, there is now the opportunity to open a new front, with Rahman's forces on the Afghan side and those of Moulvi Faqir Mohammad on the Bajaur and Mohmand side.
This region is also home to displaced militants from Pakistan's Swat Valley, who withdrew earlier this year after a military offensive in that area. They are believed to have regrouped and are preparing for new action in Swat once the winter snows block passes, making it difficult for the army's supply lines.
The latest developments in Nuristan mark a dramatic about-turn. In late 2008, coalition forces, along with the Pakistani military, launched Operation Lion Heart. The idea was that militants would be squeezed between coalition forces in Kunar and Nuristan on the one side, and Pakistani troops in Mohmand and Bajaur on the other. Several months later, both armies announced - clearly prematurely - that they had succeeded in flushing out the insurgent sanctuaries in the region.
Lion Heart was planned following US and Pakistani intelligence reports that the Taliban bases in Mohmand and Bajaur and in Nuristan and Kunar fed into a network that went on to the Taghab Valley in Kapisa province, which is just to the north of the capital, Kabul. From here, the Taliban have been able to launch suicide squads for attacks in Kabul.
The US withdrawal from Nuristan, if it becomes permanent, will give an unprecedented boost to the Taliban in the whole region. In the immediate term, they are better placed than ever to disrupt next month's presidential election runoff between the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban have already issued calls for people to boycott the voting.
In a foretaste of what is to come, the Taliban on Wednesday attacked a guest house in Kabul, killing at least 12 people, including six United Nations employees, two security officials and a civilian, according to police and UN officials. Kabul police said that three attackers, all wearing suicide vests, had also been killed.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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