The persistent fighting and terrorist activity in southern Afghanistan has slowly crept into the western and northwestern provinces of Herat, Faryab, and Badghis. Random suicide bombings have struck most of the northern provinces since the spring of 2007, raising fears that the Taliban have effectively opened a northern front. The unprecedented suicide bombing attack in northern Baghlan province last month — which killed 59 school children, five of their teachers, and six visiting Parliamentarians — further jeopardized the future of northern Afghanistan’s security. Additionally, Shah Mansoor Dadullah, a top Taliban commander in charge of the insurgency’s “southern zone,” authorized his followers to launch a winter campaign against the North in a recent propaganda video produced by al Qaeda’s As Sahab media wing.
The Taliban’s gateway to the North rests in the remote and lightly defended northwestern province of Badghis, a sparsely inhabited region of 300,000 people. The central government is desperately trying to expand its vulnerable influence past the provincial capital of Qala-e-Naw and into the surrounding mountainous districts where a growing Taliban infestation has taken root. A small International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) contingent of 763 Spanish personnel makes up the majority of the foreign troops based in the province, nearly all of which are stationed at the Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Qala-e-Naw. Mostly confined the provincial capital and focused on reconstruction projects, the Spanish force was ill-prepared for a coordinated Taliban assault on Qala-e-Naw’s peripheries in June of this year.
The Taliban’s Badghis offensive
The resurgent insurgency that exploded across southern Afghanistan in 2005 has slowly spread further west, and by early 2007, spilt over into northwestern Badghis and Faryab provinces with a vengeance. But deadly insurgent attacks were not the only crisis facing Badghis province. Plagued by government mismanagement and corruption, the beleaguered provincial governor, Muhammad Nasim Tokhi, was eventually ousted after hundreds of demonstrators angrily protested against him in May. Taking advantage of the political melee, hundreds of Taliban fighters amassed and initiated large-scale assaults on two Pashtun inhabited districts (Ghurmach and Bala Murghab). Casualty reports from the incident varied wildly, but local police and raiding Taliban fighters both suffered numerous fatalities. The former Taliban governor of Ghor province, Maulvi Abdul Rahman, was quickly identified as the coordinator of the deadly assault.
By late July, with little-to-no government intervention, Taliban attacks in Badghis province became a common occurrence. Large-scale Taliban assaults on districts, like the July 26 attack on the Qades district, continued to erode any sense of stability and security. The lack of combat-ready ISAF soldiers and the small presence of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in the province only hampered the security situation further. Security would remain elusive as local Taliban cells launched a protracted roadside bomb campaign that lasted throughout the summer and continued into the fall.
ISAF and the ANA strike back
ISAF forces and the new governor, Mohammad Ashraf Nasseri, joined forces in October and initiated a combined security plan. On October 31, ISAF forces along with elements of the ANA 209th Shaheen Corps launched Operation Shaheen Sahra-2 in Faryab and Badghis provinces. Taliban improvised explosive device cells and their commanders were successfully targeted and several factional militiamen were disarmed. Seventeen insurgent fighters and their commander, Mullah Abdul Qayum, were captured on the first day of the operation. Coalition airstrikes also pounded Taliban positions in the Ghormach district days later. Twenty Taliban fighters, including their commander Mullah Babai, died in the air raid, according to Afghan Major General Murad Ali Murad. He later touted the operation’s success at a press conference on November 10 saying the joint ISAF-Afghan force killed over 50 Taliban, captured another 20, and confiscated scores of light and heavy weapons from local commanders.
Securing and rebuilding
Amid a creeping insurgency at their northern doorstep, Badghis officials inaugurated a road reconstruction project during a recent high-level meeting in the Muqur district. A paved road now connects the provincial capital with the Muqur district, an important gesture to a district that is 85 percent Pashtun, according to a UN district profile. Further reconstruction projects are planned and US Agency of International Development programs such as theAccelerating Sustainable Agriculture Program, Basic Education Program, and an anti-Polio drive are expected to continue through 2011. In addition to reconstruction and humanitarian aid, ISAF and Afghan forces intend to repeat the tactical victories gained over the northern Taliban as seen in Operation Shahar-Shaheen II.
However, the role of Badghis province and its relevance to northern Afghanistan’s security cannot be underestimated. Largely ignored since the Taliban’s removal in 2001, Badghis has slowly but steadily declined in both security and stability measures. It is important to note that the 2004 massacre of five medical workers in Badghis and two Afghan and three European doctors is what ended the Afghan humanitarian operations of Doctors Without Borders/M
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