Nuristan drawdown gives new life to Pakistani Taliban

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Northeastern Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan. Map from the Asia Times; click to view.

Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad says that the US pullback in Nuristan has breathed new life into the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand, and in the Swat Valley as well. The effective Taliban control of Nuristan due to the withdrawal of US forces has allowed Qari Ziaur Rahman to reorient forces across the border in Pakistan and open new fronts as the Pakistani Army is focused on South Waziristan.

Rahman is the Taliban commander for northeastern Afghanistan who has close ties to al Qaeda. Before Shahzad’s report is dismissed as mere Taliban and al Qaeda propaganda, note that he accurately reported on the rise of the Taliban back in 2005 and 2006 while others said the groups were dead and buried. Also note that fighting in Bajaur and Mohmand has intensified over the past several weeks. And finally, last weekend’s US Predator strike in Bajaur targeted Faqir Mohammed and al Qaeda and Taliban leaders while they were conducting a planning session on operations in the region.

Despite the tough situation US and Afghan forces faced in the remote valleys of Nuristan, the troops kept Taliban forces tied down and forced them to operate in the region. The abandonment of these bases to focus on population centers has consequences – Taliban resources are eased in the region, new safe havens are established, the Taliban get a windfall propaganda victory, any locals who even remotely helped US forces are preyed upon, and the message that US forces can abandon you too is spread among the Afghan people. From the Asia Times:

The province is now under the effective control of the network belonging to Qari Ziaur Rahman, a Taliban commander with strong ties to Bin Laden. This makes Nuristan the first Afghan province to be controlled by a network inspired by al-Qaeda.

In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, a militant linked to Rahman said that now that they had control of Nuristan, the militants are “marching towards Mohmand and Bajaur to help their fellow Taliban fighting against Pakistani troops”, referring to two tribal agencies across the border.

The Taliban’s control of Nuristan coincides with the big Pakistani military operation in the South Waziristan tribal area against the al-Qaeda-backed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has been underway for the past two weeks. As the militant who spoke to Asia Times Online said, there is now the opportunity to open a new front, with Rahman’s forces on the Afghan side and those of Moulvi Faqir Mohammad on the Bajaur and Mohmand side.

This region is also home to displaced militants from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, who withdrew earlier this year after a military offensive in that area. They are believed to have regrouped and are preparing for new action in Swat once the winter snows block passes, making it difficult for the army’s supply lines.

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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9 Comments

  • Mr T says:

    The Nuristan drawdown made no sense to me at the time. Bills article makes all the valid points.
    Did General McChrystal come up with this stupid plan? If so, I lose a lot of confidence in his abilities. It could be a colossal blunder.
    I guess it’s also possible he was forced into it because we do not have sufficient forces there. That would make it Presidents Obams colossal blunder as he continues to equivocate on sending more troops.
    And NATO countries share that blame for not sending more troops to help.
    One question I have on troop buildup is the timing. There is a “fighting season” there. We are in it. Troop buildups should have occurred prior to the current fighting season. I had heard the AQAM was really going to bring it this season. Why did our commanders not know that, ask for appropriate troops and get ready for this one. It appears we were a little underprepared this year.
    Also, it seems we could still hit them hard in the off season. They may not be able to move due to the snow etc but planes can still fly. They do a lot of buildup and training during that time.
    It seems we should be hitting them hard in the offseason, building our own troops up, working the political front hard, and then we would be more prepared when the “fighting season” starts.
    If Obama authorizes troops today, they will not be a factor until next spring/summer. I feel badly for those who help us and and then watch us leave them to die at the hands of a brutal Taliban AQAM force.

  • grh says:

    LWG – another example of great analysis. Clear, hold, get bloodied and leave because we don’t have sufficient forces to clear, hold, build. And the poor folks left behind are at the mercy of the enemy. And folks wonder why they can’t trust the US to stay the course. These folks live it first hand. The death of the brave US warriors … may they not sacrifice in vain.
    The West, need to win and beat the Taliban, the Salafists, the Salafist Wahabbis.
    I noted with interest the recent NATO Ministerial – endorsed the ISAF strategy without additional resources, at this time. I am sure they are waiting for Obama to declare his position on the strategy. After which most NATO allies will not send additional resources.

  • Dan A says:

    While all these points are true, it still doesn’t mean it wasn’t the correct choice. It’s not like the Taliban are hurting for safe havens, and we by no means could control that region anyway. Places like the town by Keating couldn’t be controlled, and it had a COP by it, let alone the other parts. To have a fit about a province with 112,000 people in a country of 30,000,000 people seems misplaced.
    Those troops are better put in somewhere like Kunar, let alone other places outside of the east. It’s important that strategic areas get those troops. If routes into and out of Nuristan can be manned, hopefully any damage done can be at least contained.
    This also brings up the issue if some places that can’t reasonably be won in order to tie down the Taliban’s effort. IMO, this makes sense in some places, but Nuristan isn’t a huge strategic loss for ISAF nor a huge gain for the Taliban. Because of this, I think pulling troops out of Nuristan is the right move.

  • Aamer says:

    The timing and the message it sends is incomprehensible. The same is happening on the border with South Waziristan where nine NATO check posts have reportedly been abandoned. What is happening here? Are we about to see another Saigon. For those who support the war against Taliban, this is backstabbing.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    It is a basic military principle that you do not fight battles you are going to lose. Talking about withdrawal of troops from Nuristan as though by this withdrawal the Taliban are in any way strengthened beyond getting a propaganda talking-point shows a thorough misunderstanding of the actual situation on the ground.
    As shown by the recent tragic attack at COP Keating Coalition forces in Nuristan had insufficient numbers to even temporarily clear villages situated near their outposts or really conduct any kind of offensive operations. They were not holding anything outside of their own barbed wire.
    Pulling troops out changes nothing beyond letting us use the resources freed more effectively to conduct counterinsurgency with adequate forces in more populous parts of Afghanistan as the Taliban already owned all of Nuristan that was not within machine-gun range of a coalition outpost. As insurgents with complete control of the area they were not being meaningfully threatened or “tied down” by Coalition forces, beyond those engagements they themselves chose to initiate.
    I find it hard to justify putting troops into a situation in which they are basically targets for the enemy. McChrystal is obeying the principle of mass by concentrating Coalition forces and withdrawing troops from fights that we are not going to win. In a couple years we’ll be back in Nuristan to conduct counterinsurgency with brigades instead of putting platoons out as targets, and in the meantime we can more effectively fight the enemy in Nuristan by going in and out with raids instead of setting up undermanned and ineffective outposts.
    It’s easy to be macho and say, “Let’s go beat on the Taliban in Nuristan! Not one step back!” It’s something else entirely to win the war, which is what our leadership is aiming to do. There are some battles you should not fight.

  • Mr T says:

    Did you guys even read Bills article?
    Breathed new life into the Taliban. Sounds like a lot more at stake than control of some villages outside the wire to me.

  • Dan A says:

    Mr T:
    My comment doesn’t challenge Bill’s points, but my opinion stays the same. All the same points can be made about a lot of places in Afghanistan. Parts of Kunar, Khost, and even Helmand and Kunduz where the Taliban have free reign, can threaten other provinces, etc, and each of those are at least as strategically important. Each has a bigger chance of ISAF turning the tide.
    The real question IMO is it worth placing troops “into the hornets nest” in order to get the Taliban to expend resources in places where ISAF can use more firepower. McCrystal doesn’t seem to think so. Personally, I think it does in some places, but others it’s just a waste of time.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Given what I have written, perhaps it may have come as a shock that I actually agree with much of what Dan A and Armchair Warlord said above. I particularly agree with Dan A’s last paragraph:

    The real question IMO is it worth placing troops “into the hornets nest” in order to get the Taliban to expend resources in places where ISAF can use more firepower. McCrystal doesn’t seem to think so. Personally, I think it does in some places, but others it’s just a waste of time.

    [This will not be well fleshed out due to time constraints, have a magazine article due today.] These outposts on their own are in placed that are relatively insignificant and are difficult to defend. Tactically the outposts are insignificant. In the bigger picture, the perceptions matter. Afghans see US forces abandoning Afghans. The propaganda value of this is enormous (as would the value of fully overrunning a base, to be fair). The Taliban and al Qaeda see the US withdrawing from a region and can allocate forces differently. And as long as AQ/Taliban is using resources to hit these bases, they are in effect tying themselves down to the area. You can see this in the internal AQ/Taliban debate on how they should use their forces. Yes, the Taliban still control areas they effectively controlled, but now they have free reign.
    I also find it hard to justify putting troops in a position to be targeted by the enemy. But in fact, many a patrol in Afghanistan and Iraq is launched to initiate such contact. I’ve been on some. And sometimes the military does seemingly stupid things to make a point about commitment. See Operation Doolittle (yes another war, another time, but the point stands).
    I don’t think staying at Keating is a good idea, the base seems to be a nightmare to defend. In my opinion the complete withdrawal from bases in Nuristan save the provincial center so soon after that battle gives the Taliban too much. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to think so as well. Perhaps we can find some hornet’s nests that can be more easily defended. This would also allow the US to legitimately say it is repositioning rather than withdrawing.
    Well that is worthy of shooting a million holes thru, I set myself up for that, and won’t have a chance to respond unfortunately.

  • Dan A says:

    Wow, did I just get quoted by Bill Roggio? It’s quite the honor.
    I know you might not be able to respond for a bit, but I’ll try to hash out my thoughts for a bit. It seems to me that Keating was designed for a McCrystal-style counterinsurgency with troops trying to get close to the population, even though the population was unable or unwilling to cooperate (or likely both). Even if proper counterinsurgency was possible there, it wouldn’t have a whole lot of benefit anyway.
    It would seem to me that isolated COP’s have value in places that will draw outsized Taliban activity in a place where ISAF firepower advantages can brought to bear and/or in strategically important smuggling/infiltration routes. Parts of Kunar come to mind. Such outposts would also need commanding terrain, not stuck in some narrow valley with mountains on all sides in the middle of nowhere.

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