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
• 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.