Kapisa province: The Taliban's gateway to Kabul
One day prior to the deadly Taliban assault against the heavily guarded April 27 Mujahidin Victory parade in Kabul, a US raid 75 kilometers north of the capital attempted to disrupt an insurgent commander's operation to disrupt the ceremony. US and Afghan forces conducted a search of several compounds in the Tag Ab Valley, an infamous insurgent stronghold in Kapisa province, in an effort to locate a Taliban leader suspected of facilitating a number of deadly attacks against security forces and who was suspected of planning an attack against the Mujahidin Victory celebration. The raid also aimed to disrupt local insurgent roadside bomb cells. A suicide bomb vest was discovered during the search and removed from the area.
Shortly after searching the compounds, gunmen ambushed the patrol from neighboring buildings, sparking a massive gun battle that lasted until Coalition forces unleashed a hail of artillery fire and called in close-air support. Several gunmen were killed in the bombardment and a number of civilians were wounded. The suspected Taliban mastermind is believed to have been killed during the battle, according to a Combined Joint Task Force-82 statement regarding the incident.
The following day, six Taliban snipers opened fire on the Mujahidin Victory parade in Kabul as hundreds of journalists, dignitaries, and government officials gathered to observe the national holiday. Four people, including a Member of Parliament from Paktia province and a 10-year-old boy, were killed in the attack. Three of the Taliban attackers were shot dead by police and the remaining three were arrested. The attack is believed to have been carried out by the Haqqani Network, a terrorist organization led by insurgent commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, who outsourced logistical needs from local gunmen loyal to fugitive commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The Taliban's ability to attack a ceremony amid heightened security in the heart of Kabul while scores of VIPs attended served as a major propaganda coup for the Taliban who previously claimed they can launch an attack anywhere in Afghanistan at a time of their choosing. The preceding raid in Kapisa may also be significant, indicating the Taliban's reliance on the Tag Ab Valley as the key staging ground for attacks against targets in Kabul and Bagram.
Eye of the storm: Kapisa's Tag Ab district
In 2006, officials believed an estimated 300 to 500 Taliban had amassed in Tag Ab in preparation for a terror offensive against targets in Kabul. US Special Forces subsequently staged a series of commando raids against known Taliban training camps in the region, shutting down three such camps and temporarily driving the remaining Taliban fighters from the area. "Tagab was a key base for the Taliban," said Abdur Sattar Murad, the governor of Kapisa at the time, "but now NATO and coalition forces patrol regularly and I'm sure the Taliban will not come back."
Murad, who had contributed a 900-strong Afghan National Police force to counter the insurgent threat in the Tag Ab, the largest partnership ever formed with the ANP in support of Afghan National Army and Coalition force operations, was mysteriously removed from his post in July 2007. Murad had given a bleak outlook on his province's security situation to Newsweek only days prior to his removal, something the central government claimed had nothing to due with his ouster.
Others Afghanis, including local residents, believed Murad was removed on the recommendation by Hadi Safi, a Member of Parliament from Kapisa's Nejrab district who is seen as a powerfully destabilizing figure in the province. Safi, a former jihadi commander, is suspected of maintaining his own militia in the Pachaghan Valley, who in turn are said to be closely associated with Taliban fighters led by Kapisa's Taliban warlord Qari Baryal.
Qari Baryal is a senior Taliban leader currently wanted by the US military for "coordinating and planning attacks against Coalition and Afghan forces and may be connected to several IED strikes in Kunar province," according to an unclassified US military dossier on Baryal exclusively obtained by The Long War Journal. "He has recently shown interest in using the Kapisa province's close proximity to Kabul and Bagram Air Base to conduct unspecified terrorist operations," the report added.
Coalition forces narrowly missed killing Baryal during a targeted airstrike against a compound in the Tag Ab Valley thought to be used as a high-level insurgent meeting place on Jan. 12. A number of suspected insurgents were killed during the raid, but Baryal managed to escape. Baryal leads an entrenched network of insurgents with at least two senior lieutenants under his command: Qari Nejat, who operates throughout the Nejrab district, and Mullah Mahmood, who runs operations out of the Landokheyl area of the Tag Ab district.
Insurgent staging ground
Kapisa province has served as an insurgent bastion for several years, hosting a wide array of criminal and insurgent networks including Taliban suicide-bomb cells, Hezb-i-Islami insurgents loyal to renegade commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and anti-government tribal militias. The districts of Nejrab and Tag Ab are the hardest hit out of Kapisa's six districts. "About Kapisa province, security is okay in general, but Tagab is not as safe as other districts in the province," Muqim Jamshady, the chief executive officer of Afghan Logistics and Tours, told The Long War Journal in a recent interview.
Last September, shortly after Murad was ousted from his governorship, a Taliban propaganda video appeared on Al Jazeera television. The video demonstrated the Taliban's ability to roam freely throughout the Tag Ab district in broad daylight.
Oji Mullah, a local Taliban commander interviewed on the tape, claimed the Taliban controlled most of the district with the exception of the district center. "Hundreds of mujahidin are in this area," he said into the camera. "If we want, in two hours, God willing, we could take all of Tagab."
Dozens of heavily armed fighters patrolled the streets, searched passersby they did not recognize, and claimed they bought heavy weaponry and ammunition from rouge elements of the Afghan National Police force and Army. "We have old stores of ammunition and the national army is also selling us weapons because they have very poor discipline," Oji Mullah added.
Although the Taliban's claims cannot be verified, US forces have conceded the security situation in Tag Ab remains tense, with militaryrecords showing over 100 violent engagements between Coalition forces and insurgents have occurred there since last April.
"The security situation in Tag Ab remains unstable," a US military spokesman told The Long War Journal in a recent interview. "Afghan National Security Forces and International Security Assistance Forces are working hard to uproot the localized insurgency. Kapisa is being used as a staging area for attacks into the capital including suicide attacks. Various Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami commanders, in and outside the Valley, realize the importance of maintaining support in this area to keep this facilitation hub open. The 1st Kandak of the 201st Corps of the Afghan National Army along with other Afghan National Security Forces and supported by Coalition Forces, are currently conducting Operation Mouje Sealam to disrupt insurgent activities, increase the support of the populace for the Afghan government and increase the level of security in Kapisa. The local populace is the most important aspect of bringing safety to the villages of Tag Ab."
Just last month, insurgents nearly assassinated the newly appointed governor of Kapisa during a remote-control bomb attack against his convoy. The bomb went off as he traveled through the Tag Ab district to an inauguration ceremony swearing in a new government administrator for the neighboring Alizay district. No one was injured in the attack. The brazen attack that struck the governor's security convoy provided by Coalition forces highlights the freedom of movement insurgents enjoy throughout the district.
Targeting the Taliban in Tag Ab
Saturday's targeted raid follows a series of US and Afghan commando raids conducted in the Tag Ab Valley over the last week. Members of the Afghan National Army's 207th Commando Kandak performed a series of nighttime air assaults on suspected insurgent positions in the Tag Ab area on April 21, according to a Combined Joint Task Force-82 statement. One insurgent was detained and another killed during one of the raids that also resulted in the seizure of an arms cache and improvised explosive device materials.
Earlier raids against Kapisa's Taliban infestation began in January and consisted of several four-day operations up and down the Tag Ab Valley with various Afghan Commando units participating. US military advisers have used Kapisa-based operations to train at least three separate Commando units, including members of the Afghan National Army's 207th Commando Kandak, 2nd Company 205th Commando Kandak, and 1st Company 201st Commando Kandak.
"I feel that there is continual improvement due to the growing capability of the Commando training company, the Afghan cadre, as well as the attention that the program receives from key leaders in the Afghan National Army and the Ministry of Defense," a US Special Forces commander training Afghan commandos in Kapisa told the journalists at Bagram Media Center. "The capabilities of the Commando force enhance the security of the Afghan people, thus creating the opportunity for stability operations," the Special Forces commander added.
Despite the ongoing efforts by Coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts, it is unlikely the restive Tag Ab Valley will not be rid of its Taliban infestation anytime soon. Further Commando operations are planned and other security initiatives continue to play out in the area. In the latest operation, one Coalition soldier was killed and another seriously wounded after insurgents ambushed their patrol in the Tag Ab district on April 29.
Security and uplift measures are being conducted in Tag Ab's surrounding districts in an attempt to isolate the influence insurgents maintain over the locals. Several such projects, including the groundbreaking of a $500,000 sports stadium on Feb. 21, have already brought jobs and monetary gains to the local economy. A vital bridge linking the Friday market in Nejrab to the district's main market has already been built. "The Friday market plays a vital role on the livelihood of the farmers. It is in this market that the local populations trade their livestock and vegetable produce," said the Governor of Kapisa, Khoja Ghulam Ghous Abobaker, in a statement made available to Afgha.com. The completion of the bridge is expected to enhance the social and economic conditions facing over 150,000 inhabitants living in the Nejrab district.