The fight against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied extremists in eastern Afghanistan has heated up over the past year. According to a high-level NGO executive, al Qaeda has called for jihadis to flock to Nuristan to help push the Americans out. The open plea from al Qaeda may point to the importance Nuristan has held to the insurgency in this region along the border with Kunar province. Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom there has been no sustained, conventional Coalition or government presence in Nuristan. Emboldened by a seemingly neglectful strategy in regard to the area, Nuristan and its isolated valleys have become a comfortable home for hundreds of terrorists and other anti-government allies.
In July 2007, Richard Strand, who has worked in and collected data on Nuristan for 40 years, published his interpretation of current issues plaguing, what he calls, “The Nuristan-Kunar Corridor”. According to Strand, this corridor is the gateway to Kabul and al Qaeda is making a major push to secure it. Strand’s deep local ties suggest, to him, that the presence of al Qaeda in Nuristan is growing, fueled by support by the mosques, particularly in the Kamdish district of Nuristan.
US pushes into Nuristan
In the summer of 2006, things started to change for commanders in charge of Regional Command East. For the first time perhaps during the history of the Operation Enduring Freedom, real reinforcements were shifting into their area of operations. The shift was a result of allied forces, led by Britain and Canada, assuming responsibility for an increasingly restive southern section of the country, with Italy and Spain leading the way in the West. This allowed US generals to mainly focus on one region: The East. By the end of 2005, the Americans had just over 23,000 troops in theater increasing to current levels of more than 26,000 troops.
Within Regional Command East, the sector known as N2KL — Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar, and Laghman provinces — has been the scene of relatively steady insurgent activity. By June 2007, the sector was home to more than 3,500 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade — augmented by a battalion of National Guard soldiers and 100 Navy Provincial Reconstruction Team personnel — making it the heaviest troop concentration for that area since the beginning of the war. The paratroopers spread out over at least 22 posts, many of which were still fresh, having been built just months before by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.
In February 2006, more than four years after the invasion, the US made a firm push north into this secluded, rugged part of Afghanistan. The 10th Mountain Division pushed deep into Nuristan in preparation for soon-to-be-built forward operating bases; the operation lasted three months. Called Operation Mountain Lion, the units spread out through the narrow valleys and high altitudes of Kunar and Nuristan, chasing an elusive enemy.
In Nuristan in August 2006, the operation allowed the US to set up FOB Kamdish — now called Camp Keating — and several other outposts in towns like Urmul and Kamu; towns along the winding narrow road that runs next to the Kunar River toward Kunar province, then Pakistan. It is this road — nicknamed “Ambush Alley” — the US wants to control.
Extremists and criminals in the area want the road for themselves. The camp at Urmul saw attacks in the first 10 days of its existence. Within three weeks of completion, FOB Kamdish was assaulted in force twice by al Qaeda, including a three-pronged attack that resulted in the deaths of at least 19 fighters. Although originally meant to act as an eastern PRT, FOB Kamdish’s PRT duties were minimal as attacks made humanitarian mission dangerous.
Since August 2006, the US and its Afghan allies established joint camps in Kala Gush, Paruns, Aranas, and Gowerdesh. At Kala Gush, the US stood up a PRT, which has since moved to the capital, Paruns. Waygal, Gowerdesh, and Kamdish — plus outposts in between — were placed to deny insurgents infiltration routes as well as command and control areas for attacks on the neighbor to the south, Kunar province.
It is the establishment of this string of bases and outposts that Strand says ignited the jihad within a jihad. This past June as Nuristan’s Taliban commander, Mullah Munibullah, told NBC News that his forces have united with al Qaeda and other extremist elements. Strand confirms the area has been filling up with extremists since the start of the war. Those extremist groups remained relatively quiet, watching how US forces in neighboring Kunar reacted to insurgent forces there. Seeing little in terms of Coalition or government activity in the area — in 2003, just three Special Forces teams, one Special Ops team, and a company of airborne infantry operated out of Asadabad — anti-government forces were emboldened, leading to increased attacks beginning in 2004.
Who is the enemy?
Nuristan has long been a place where extremist groups have flourished. It is the area credited with the first organized uprising against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and has long been the stomping grounds for the area’s primary extremist group, Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbaddin (HiG) controlled by former-US ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In Nuristan, HiG fighters answer to Hekmateyr’s subcommander, Haji Ghafour, and are said to number at least 300. HiG in turn plays host to the plethora of al Qaeda fighters who come through the Nuristan-Kunar corridor this way, usually via Chitral in Pakistan.
The Taliban forces, not too common in the area in the past, have also made gains. Lashkari-Tayab — a group that has direct, sworn ties to bin Laden — has a solid presence in Nuristan as well. This is in part to one of the region’s top warlords, Mullah Afzel. Afzel, a wahhabiist, holds considerable influence over the district north of Kamdish called Bargi Matal — the same place that has long been thought to be hiding bin Laden. The UN noted the opening of a madrassa in the area supported by Anzel. There are also rumors among locals that talk of training camps in the mountains beyond the populated areas of the valley. Material support for these anti-government forces must come through Kamdish, making that position a vital choke point.
There are also several active criminal gangs that thrive on the illegal timber industry. Some observers believe that more than half the attacks on Coalition and government troops come from these groups. One group in particular, led by Haji Usman, is considered one of the region’s top security issues and is blamed for everything from killing tribal chiefs and police chiefs to cutting the ears and noses from Afghan drivers that support the US-led effort.
Another problem is blood feuds, including a serious rift between different Nuristani tribes in the Kamdish district. All anti-Coalition forces use these feuding traditions to their advantage against the Coalition, working to keep disagreements stoked and limiting the effectiveness of US and government humanitarian efforts.
The bin Laden factor
It is commonly believed that Nuristan and Kunar could be hiding the elusive Osama bin Laden. So why, after four years of war, did the US finally deploy conventional troops to the area in force? The answer may lie in a little talked about incident that happened in late 2006. Afghan intelligence arrested a man named Sayed Akbar at the Pakistani border in Kunar who turned out to be a member of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). According to Akbar, he helped two other ISI agents smuggle bin Laden out of Nuristan in late 2005. While not verified as true, the timing of Nuristan converting from a Special Forces operation to a conventional one in early 2006 may lend credence to the report, which would put bin Laden in Chitral as late as early 2006. While the theory is plausible, the more likely reason Coalition forces have finally gone into Nuristan is because of the increased assets available to the US following NATO’s assumed responsibility of the rest of the country.
What to look for
The 10th Mountain Division, while killing more than 2,100 insurgents over the course of their tour, suffered the loss 35 soldiers killed in action during the unit’s last deployment into Afghanistan. The successor unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, has also been taking significant casualties in the nearly three months it has been on the ground as well. There have been at least 13 paratroopers killed in action as of September 1. Most of the deaths have occurred in sector N2KL, where recently heavy fighting has been reported:
July 27: Heavy fighting in Nuristan province in Kamdish district near Kamu killed two Americans and an Afghan, wounding 14 others. Twenty-five Taliban were also killed.
August 21: Extremists wearing Afghan National Army uniforms conducted a daring daylight attack on an International Security Assistance Force base in the Waygol district of Nuristan, killing two Afghans and wounding 11 ISAF troops.
August 26: Taliban members sprung a deadly ambush on a joint US-Afghan patrol in Ghazni Abad, near the Pak border. The attack killed three Americans and two Afghans, wounding a dozen more.
August 31: US forces and Afghan forces launch an air assault on a group of compounds less than three miles from Pakistan in Kamdish district. More than twenty extremists were killed, another 11 captured. The compounds were being used for training, bomb making, and coordinating attacks throughout the Kamdish area (perhaps one of the training facilities that have been rumored to be in the area).
Through the rest of the summer and into the fall, expect allied forces to continue high-pressure, mobile operations that are designed to keep their enemy on the run, denying them a place to settle in for the winter, or at the very least, isolate them in areas that are relatively inaccessible. US troops will also continue recruiting locals into the Afghan National Army and police forces, while continuing the mixture of civil projects designed to help the average Nuristani.
Once winter sets in, fighting in many of these areas all but stops as the terrain in winter makes it nearly impossible to move tactically either by foot or vehicle. Heavy snow forces outpost helipads to close. These are all factors that typically lead to heavy spring fighting as the two sides emerge from the winter lull.
The key for Coalition forces during the winter months will be to preempt any “spring offensive” that the extremists will most likely tout. In late winter 2007, US and Afghan troops launched Operation Bad Axe through the Korengal Valley of the Kunar. The idea was to disrupt extremist attacks before they could be set, driving the fighters into the mountains directly from their winter hideouts before the spring thaw. Bad Axe is what commanders on the ground credit for thwarting heavy spring fighting in this area as promised. Regardless, if the extremists are able to answer the call of jihad in Nuristan, the Coalition should expect the heaviest fighting in the eastern region in the spring of 2008 than any year before.