Joint al Qaeda and Taliban force behind Nuristan base attack

Yesterday’s deadly complex attack on a joint US and Afghan outpost in Nuristan province was carried out by a large, mixed force of Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups operating eastern Afghanistan.

Sunday’s assault occurred just three days after 45 US soldiers, likely from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and 25 Afghan troops established a new combat outpost in the town of Wanat, which straddles the provincial border between Nuristan and Kunar. The troops had little time to learn the lay of the land, establish local contacts, and build an intelligence network. The fortifications were not fully completed, according to initial reports.

A complex attack

The assault was carried out in the early morning of July 13 after the extremist forces, numbering between 200 and 500 fighters, took over a neighboring village. “What they [the Taliban] did was they moved into an adjacent village – which was close to the combat outpost – they basically expelled the villagers and used their houses to attack us,” an anonymous senior Afghan defense ministry official told Al Jazeera. Tribesmen in the town stayed behind “and helped the insurgents during the fight,” General Mohammad Qasim Jangalbagh, the provincial police chief, told The Associated Press.

The Taliban force then conducted a complex attack, coordinating a ground assault with supporting fires. Approximately 100 enemy fighters were reported to have moved close to the base while under a heavy barrage of machinegun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. The fighters advanced on the outpost from three sides.

Taliban fighters breached the outer perimeter of the outpost but were repelled. US troops called in artillery, helicopter, and air support to help beat back the attacking force. Casualties were heavy on both sides, with nine US soldiers and 40 Taliban fighters killed during the assault. Fifteen US and four Afghan soldiers were also wounded in the attack.

An extremist alliance

The assault on the Wanat outpost was conducted by an alliance of extremist groups operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to reports. A senior Afghan defense official told Al Jazeera that “various anti-government factions including Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Hezb-i-Islami faction were involved” in the strike.

Tamim Nuristani, who served as governor of Nuristan before President Hamid Karzai relieve him of his post for criticizing a US airstrike that is thought to have killed Afghan civilians, said Taliban and Pakistani groups banded together for the attack. “The (attackers) were not only from Nuristan but from other districts,” Nuristani said.

“They are not only Taliban. They were (Pakistan-based) Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hezb-i-Islami, Taliban and those people who are dissatisfied with the (Karzai) government after these recent incidents,” Nuristani said, intimating the attack was revenge for the US airstrike. “They all came together for this one.”

Kunar hosts a major infiltration route and a witches’ brew of extremist

Activity in Kunar province has been particularly fierce over the past year. According to an Afghan security report obtained by The Long War Journal, Kunar suffered 963 attacks in 2007, making it the second most active province for insurgents, after Kandahar. The data for 2008 shows the same trend, with Kunar behind only Kandahar in the number of Taliban-related attacks.

US forces have stepped up their presence in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province since 2005, building remote outposts and bases along established smuggling routes used by insurgent forces. According to one regional report, the US recently finished construction on a vital outpost near the notorious Ghahki Pass, a narrow gorge connecting Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency with Kunar province.

The Ghahki Pass has remained a vital extremist infiltration route since the conflict began. In October 2001, more than 1,000 Pakistani jihadists flooded through the narrow canyon into Afghanistan and joined the Taliban in their fight against Coalition forces. Seven years later, the local population remains openly hostile to both the Afghan government and US forces, making it an ideal area for extremist activity to thrive.

A host of Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups operate inside Kunar and in the Bajaur tribal agency in neighboring Pakistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Younus Khalis’s Hezb-i-Islami factions operate in Kunar and in neighboring Bajaur. The Kashmiri-based Lashkar-e-Taiba also operates in the border region. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, are thought to shelter in the region.

Bajaur is a strategic command and control hub for al Qaeda. The tribal agency is administered by Faqir Mohammed, the local leader of the outlawed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law) and the deputy leader of Baitullah Mehsud’s unified Pakistani Taliban movement. The TNSM sent thousands of fighters into Afghanistan to fight US forces in 2001 and 2002, and continues to sponsor attacks in Afghanistan.

Pakistan remains a sanctuary for extremist leaders, as raids in early February demonstrated. After capturing Mansoor Dadullah in the southern part of the country, Pakistani security forces arrested several senior al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban commanders from Kunar during raids in Swat and Peshawar.

Pakistan is the Taliban’s training ground

The Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups, collectively called AQAM or al Qaeda and Allied Movements by various military and intelligence sources, have established their base of operations inside Pakistan’s tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province.

The peace agreements signed between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, which have been ongoing since March 2006, have given AQAM the time and spaced needed to establish a series of camps throughout the Northwest Frontier Province.

Terrorist groups have set up a series of camps throughout the tribal areas and in the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province. “More than 100” terror camps of varying sizes and types are currently in operation in the region, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. As of the summer of 2007, 29 terror camps were known to be operating in North and South Waziristan alone.

Some camps are devoted to training the Taliban’s military arm, some train suicide bombers for attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some focus on training the various Kashmiri terror groups, some train al Qaeda operatives for attacks in the West, and one serves as a training ground the Black Guard, the elite bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda has also reformed Brigade 055, the infamous military arm of the terror group made up of Arab recruits. The unit is thought to be commanded by Shaikh Khalid Habib al Shami. Brigade 055 fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and was decimated during the US invasion of Afghanistan. Several other Arab brigades have been formed, some consisting of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards, an intelligence official told The Long War Journal.

Al Qaeda’s elite forces were likely involved in the planning and execution of Sunday’s sophisticated attack.


The Long War Journal: Taliban launch deadly attack on a combat outpost in Afghanistan’s Kunar province

The Long War Journal: Afghan Taliban leaders nabbed in Pakistan

The Long War Journal: “More than 100 terror camps” in operation in northwestern Pakistan

Al Jazeera: Taliban fighters storm US base

The AP: Deadly attack on US base sends worrying signal

The AP: 9 U.S. soldiers killed in Taliban assault on base

• Program for Culture and Conflict Studies: Kunar Province briefing

Correction: ISAF identified the outpost as being located in the town of Wanat in Kunar province. AIMS maps also identify Wanat as being located in Kunar. The town straddles the provincial boundary between Kunar and Nuristan, and Afghan officials state the town is in Nuristan. This entry has been update to reflect that Wanat is in Nuristan.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • C. Jordan says:

    “Al Qaeda’s elite forces were likely involved in the planning and execution of Sunday’s sophisticated attack in Kunar.”
    surprise surprise…
    Lets get them!

  • coldoc says:

    A surprisingly quick and heavy response for a new outpost. From the sound of the report, I would say this COP is right in the “throat” of the beast! No wonder they (AQ + Taliban) reacted so viciously.
    I don’t buy that this was a well-planned attack. I don’t imagine that the “bad guys” had much time for planning this particular one, nor could they have had a “contingency plan”. I suspect that it was more of a “get a WHOLE LOT of the guys together and go drive them out!” If AQ took the casualties that I think they did, they will be thinking a bit more before the next one, and that gives our guys time to firm up their defenses and get some intel going.
    AQ + Taliban had a lot of the Principles of War in their favor on this one, but Surprise and Mass don’t necessarily beat good troop training, discipline and air support. No matter how you cut it, AQ + Taliban had another major defeat here despite having the advantage!

  • Alex says:

    Looks like we stirred up the hornet’s nest this time. Might want to push more in this area.

  • anonymous says:

    Some good in this post, but it reflects a lack of actual experience in this region.
    The population in Kunar and Nuristan does not remain “openly hostile” to the government and to US forces. In fact, one can’t generalize about “the population” in these areas at all. The population is highly fragmented, both geographically and tribally, and its sentiments and loyalties can vary enormously from town to town. To the extent that one can determine trends one can say this: Along the main roads and lines of communication in these areas, the majority of the population is openly SUPPORTIVE of the coalition’s efforts, albeit with some elements opposing clandestinely; in areas away from the lines of communication, the majority of the population is either fence-sitting, or favors the anti-government elements, albeit with some supporting the government clandestinely; and in almost all areas, the population is mostly interested in its own local situation, and is highly sensitive to the ministrations of either the government or the enemy. What this means is the government tends to control the main population centers; the enemy has relatively free but not open movement through deserted or very remote areas; any area in the region can prove an exception to these ‘rules’; and an area can ‘flip’ one way or the other quite quickly.
    To make blanket generalizations about the sentiments of these populations toward the coalition is to mistake the impact and meaning of the events of the last few days.
    The comments regarding the enemy’s makeup are pretty good, and are important because they add to the public’s understanding of this ‘side-conflict,’ which, judging from the people we’re fighting, might well be better treated as the main show.

  • David says:

    Want is not in Kunar. It is the district center of Waygal district, one of seven districts in Nuristan province. Nor is it a town. It is a small hamlet at best which has a few government buildings, a small bazaar and some residential compounds. Tamim Nuristani was the governor of Nuristan province, not Kunar.
    Want is close to Camp Blessing located at Nangalam. Soldiers and patrols frequently travel to Want which is accessible by a good road from Blessing. So to suggest that the soldiers had little time to learn the lay of the land, make contacts and build an intel net is just plain wrong. On many occasions soldiers from the 173rd and previous units have remained overnight there.
    This article presents much material, of which little is relevant to this incident. Groups are described who operate in the general area but this does nothing to illuminate who was behind this incident and what was their intent.
    Waygal valley has seen several lethal attacks in recent years:
    — 8/06 three US soldiers killed in an ambush between Aranas and Bella;
    — 10/06 three soldiers killed by an IED between Want and Bella;
    — 8/07 two ANA soldiers killed, 11 US wounded when insurgents entered a FOB at Aranas disguised as ANA soldiers;
    — 11/07 six US soldiers killed several others wounded in an ambush between Bella and Aranas.
    — 6/07 the police ‘station’ at Want was attacked and overrun by insurgents. At least one policeman was killed.
    The FOB at Aranas has been eliminated.

  • anonymous says:

    Those are excellent points, and important corrections.
    In addition, readers of this blog might also find it useful to know that Wanat is exactly on a fault line between Nuristan and Kunar, demographically speaking. The Waygul Valley (not Dara-i-Pech, as erroneously reported elsewhere; Dara-i-Pech continues westward, not northward, from Nangalam) all the way down to Monogai was historically Nuristani, but over the last 30 years the Safi Pashtuns encroached northward in the Valley (as, judging from the knowledge in his post, David already knows). They are settled about as far as Wanat, which makes for a pretty tense area; it’s also why as late as a couple of years ago, nobody really thought Wanat was their problem (very similar to the situation above the Helgal Valley over in the Kunar River Valley, as well as at the upper reaches of the Watapor Valley, which runs northward from its junction with the midpoint of Dara-i-Pech). This means that we must be awfully careful about drawing far-reaching conclusions about the general disposition of the population throughout Nuristan and Kunar.
    It’s probably also useful for readers to understand how ‘facts’ are arrived at in this area. The Nuristan government officials quoted here and in other articles are probably speaking from Poruns, the provincial capital. It is a very long ways from Wanat — two days’ walk or a full day’s drive, if the drive is even possible. Therefore, Nuristani government officials rarely go to Wanat (separately, I’d speculate that this is a large part of the problem in the area). They receive most of their information (especially fast-breaking information) by telephone from local reports. Further, those local reports suffer from the same infidelity; for example, Nishigram is such a far walk from Wanat that district officials rarely go there, and like the Poruns-based officials, depend on second-hand reports for their information. So, it’s easy to see that by the time a Poruns-based official gets info, it is probably at least second-hand, perhaps third-hand. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong, but it does mean it should be examined closely.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    According to the AIMS map, Wanat is in Kunar province in northern Pech:
    ISAF maintains the attack was in Kunar.
    I certainly do agree there has been a lot of confusion over the exact location. I have made inquiries but have not received a response. This certainly is part of the issues with trying to explain an event without actually being there.
    You are correct about Nuristani, that was a error on my part and I’ve corrected.
    You are certainly free to disagree with the statements about the unit’s situational awareness. Patrols and occasionally staying overnight isn’t the same as the knowledge obtained from a permanent presence. This I know from experience from talking to commanders, soldiers, and Marines in the field. For the readers who might not understand this – think of how well you know your home town vs how well you know the places you visit.

  • David Tate says:

    Wanat is loicated within Kunar’s boundry, approximately 2 miles souoth of the boundry with Nuristan, according to UN maps.
    Also, there has been a US outpost for some time in Wanat. The current base, which was attacked Sunday, is a relocated base that had security issues through the spring. In fact, US and Afghan defenders fought off an assault there in April as well.

  • David says:

    The AIMS maps are unreliable. Anybody who is actually knowledgeable about Afghanistan will tell you so. That’s true not only in Nuristan but elsewhere in the country.
    This mistake by the military highlights the broader problem of their failure in Afghanistan to integrate their situational awareness with knowledge and information from other sources. Another huge problem in this regard is their lack of understanding of the nature of the sub-national administrative structure in Afghanistan which has a unitary system. The military (and their civilian counterparts) err in placing expectations on the sub-national civilian administrators to assume responsibilities for which they have not legal basis to do so. But this is another story.
    Anonymous is correct on several facts but he is mistaken as Nuristan’s provincial center. (It is located in the Parun valley south of the village of Pashki not in ‘Poruns.’) Again our military continues to insist that the center is in something they call Poruns (spelled differently but always with an ‘s’ on the end). In the Parun valley is a communty that is often called Pruns (some variation but always with an ‘s’ sound on the end). Pruns is located further up the valley about mid-way between the most southernly village, Pashki, and most northernly permanent settlement, Ishtiwe. Parun is the valley name (without an ‘s’).
    This, too has created a world of confusion.
    Also, and getting back to the general failure to understand the sub-national administration, the term ‘capital’ is not appropriate for provincial centers in Afghanistan. Definitions of the word capital allude to it being the seat of government for a unit with sovereignty or partial sovereignty. Since, in Afghanistan’s unitary system, provinces are simply administrative units, they have no sovereignty at all. Therefore it is no more appropriate to refer to provincial centers as capitals than it is to refer to a county seat in the U.S. as being the capital of the county.
    Moreover, Afghans never, never refer to provincial centers with the Dari word ‘pai-takht’ for capital. They refer to provincial centers as ‘markaz’ which means center.
    As we go forward in Afghanistan with PRTs and others engaging with sub-national administrations, when we expect governors of Nuristan provinces and their administrations to behave with a degree of authority and executive control comparable to governors of our states, we put inappropriate and unrealistic expectations on them.
    These are not trivial issues.
    And while I appreciate the matter about the differences between patrols and a permanent presence, because Want is a key administrative center in the AO it is visited frequently for meetings, it is on the route to Bella, a COP and also it’s so close to Blessing that the THTs and other intel assets should have no problem developing assets and extracting intel from other sources from Blessing.

  • anonymous says:

    David, thanks. You of course are right about the governor’s place of business being just south of Pashki, at the mouth of the valley. Lumping that location in with all the town and calling it Poruns is geographically inaccurate. (On the other hand, it’s also proven a handy convention that appears not to be have prevented anybody from knowing where we’re talking about. But, as usual in your excellent posts on this string, you’re right.)
    Your point about the relative powerlessness of local officials is a deep one, but perhaps one that leaves the PRTs and others with nothing at all. How do you propose they should be working on these local issues?

  • David says:

    I’ll quibble about misunderstanding concerning Parun vs Porons. The AED road project that is intended to link the provincial center with the Landay Sin (eastern Nuristan), terminates at the village of Pruns, not at the government center. This is one notable result leaving the gap between Pruns and the government center to be built by someone else. Also, the Coalitions insistence to misidentify the government center confuses the locals who think that when they say “Poruns,” they’re actually talking about Pruns.
    As for the broader issue about what PRTs and others should be doing at the sub-national level, that’s way off-topic from this thread and merits extensive deliberation and discussion, but for a starter — and the point I was trying to make in my earlier post — it would help if before we good-intentioned folks barge in to do good deeds, we actually have an understanding of what it is we’re barging in to. It sounds simple but in practice it’s proving difficult.
    We’re all in too much of a hurry and we think we know far more than we do.

  • Marlin says:

    The Afghan Army initiates mop-up operations.

    Afghan soldiers killed seven militants in the northeastern province of Nuristan in clashes close to where nine U.S. soldiers were killed a day before, the Defence Ministry said on Tuesday.
    On Monday, Afghan troops launched a “search and clean-up” operation in the Wanat district of Nuristan province.
    “Seven militants who had infiltrated the area in an attempt to destabilise security were killed,” the Defence Ministry said. Several others were wounded.

    Reuters: Afghan army kills seven militants in clashes

  • Marlin says:

    The AP adds a piece of information that wasn’t in the Reuters article.

    It says that an “Arab terrorist” was also captured during the operation.

    Associated Press: Gov’t: 7 militants killed in eastern Afghanistan

  • Sean Osborne says:

    Joint Al-Qaeda, Taliban and allied extremists? The “joint” within Islam is Islam, and its “joint” warfighting doctrine is the Qur’an. This is the same extremely detrimental mistake the U.S. government has made from the get-go. One Islam, one doctrine, in one global war.

  • I concur with “David” on all his points. The AIMS maps are wrong; the true southern boundary of Nuristan Province is south of Want (please, not “Wanat”!). It’s interesting that a few news reports noted that ISAF and NATO claimed that the attack took place in Kunar, while Afghan officials said the attack was in Nuristan. I’d go with the latter when it comes to knowing their own geography.

    The concerned international community, including the media, needs to get a lot smarter about which ethnic groups we’re dealing with and where they are located. The appalling mistakes in geographical and ethnological details seen in some media reports do us all a disservice.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Richard and David, your statements as well as some responses to inquiries have convinced me that this outpost is indeed in Nuristan. I have updated the entry to reflect this and noted the correction.

  • C. Jordan says:

    Hamid Karzai comes out swingin’

  • Bill,
    Can you please tells us more about the Saddam loyalists who are working with al Qaeda in Afghanistan/Pakistan? Do you have any names? Any idea on when/how they got there? Any idea who brought them there and who their contacts in al Qaeda are/were?

  • Sean Osborne says:

    And what of the combat engagements in western Afghanistan? There are engagements occuring with the enemy fighters slipping over the border and back into Iran.
    I have not heard word one on this from anyone outside of a friend who has a friend with 7th SFG doing COIN search and destory ops. They recently lost a man in pursuit of a band of insurgents – they pursued then right into a minefield where one hummer was ripped in half by a mine.
    We’re so focused on the Pakistani FATA region that we’ve overlooked the two-front nature of the Afghan war.

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