US returns to Afghanistan's 'Lost Province,' for a while
Prior to 2010, northern Afghanistan's Nuristan province was occupied by a series of US Army outposts. But after a Taliban attack on one of the outposts left eight US soldiers dead, the outposts were abandoned, and US Army and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) pulled back to bases in Kunar province.
The move coincided with General Stanley McChrystal's implementation of a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. The strategy required US/ISAF forces to leave sparsely populated areas and focus on protecting more heavily populated ones. Sparsely populated and mountainous Nuristan, now referred to as the "Lost Province", was one of the areas abandoned.
Although it has relatively few inhabitants, Nuristan does have a feature that is useful to the Taliban: a transportation route through the mountains that links Taliban safe havens in Pakistan and in northern Kunar province to the capital of Kabul. With US and Afghan Army forces gone, the Taliban turned Nuristan and northern Kunar into a staging area. This allowed them to mount a series of attacks in Kabul in April.
Returning to Nuristan?
US Army and Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) troops are now returning to Nuristan. The 1st Battalion / 12th Infantry Regiment is extending its area of responsibility from Kunar into Nuristan, reestablishing outposts in the province.
It is important to note, however, that this move is is only temporary. Last year, the US established a new strategic plan for Afghanistan. Part of the plan calls for the US to draw down its forces over the summer, reducing the number of troops from 90,000 to 68,000 by October.
The 1st Battalion/ 12th Regiment will leave Afghanistan in October and will not be replaced by another US unit. Moreover, the ANSF does not have the present capability to replace the departing US troops. According to the US commander, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Green, "[W]e can transition in Kunar, but if we were to try and expand without increased combat power there, then yes, I do think that we would be spread so thin that it would start to break." Nor is it likely that the ANSF will develop the capability to establish a significant presence in the area in the future. The ANSF is already close to its end strength goal of 352,000 troops, and US/NATO has made the decision not to grow the ANSF beyond this level.
So, in October, Nuristan will be abandoned again, opening the door to Taliban infiltration and attacks on Kabul. As LWJ predicted last September, US/NATO's strategic decision to draw down US forces while also limiting the size of the ANSF is coming home to roost.