The Taliban have again taken control of a district in Nuristan in Afghanistan’s northeast after laying siege to the region for nearly two weeks.
Both the Afghan government and the Taliban admitted that the Taliban now control the district center of Barg-e-Matal, which sits directly on the border with Pakistan.
The Taliban gained control of Barg-e-Matal late last night after heavy fighting. The governor of Nuristan, Jamaluddin Badar, said that Afghan forces have conducted a tactical withdrawal to an area about three miles north of the district center to avoid further casualties. During the fighting, 23 Taliban fighters and four policemen were killed, Badar claimed.
The Taliban have retaken control of Barg-e-Matal despite a July 23 operation by Afghan commandos and US special operations forces that “killed a large group of insurgent fighters” during a raid near the village of Awlagul. Afghan news reports indicated that between 25 and 50 Taliban fighters were killed during the raid.
“This was an isolated area being used as a safe haven by insurgents to conduct attacks on the Afghan citizens in and around the district center of Barg-e Matal,” Colonel Donald Bolduc, the Commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan, said in an ISAF press release.
Since regaining control of the district, the Taliban have immediately exacted revenge against a tribal leader in Barg-e-Matal who cooperated with the government. Maulavi Abdul Khabir was executed by the Taliban for his support of the Afghan government.
The latest siege of Barg-e-Matal began on July 14, when hundreds of Taliban fighters crossed the border from Pakistan and seized all of the routes connecting the district with the provincial center. Pakistani Taliban fighters, led by Mullah Abdul Wali Mommand and Maulvi Saif-ur-Rahman, are said to have led the attack. Afghan officials claimed that between 700 and 1,200 Taliban, Arab, and Chechen fighters were involved in the fight.
Afghan Police and the International Security Assistance Force said that the Taliban were prevented from taking the district on July 18.
Background on the fighting in Barg-e-Matal and in Nuristan and Kunar
Barg-e-Matal has now switched hands between the government and the Taliban three times this year. On May 29, a large force of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, estimated at between 300-500 fighters, took control of the district after two days of fighting. Afghan police officials also claimed that Chechen and Pakistani fighters were involved in the assault.
Afghan officials claimed that Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Qari Fazlullah led the late May assault in Barg-e-Matal, and later claimed he was killed. But Mullah Munibullah, the Taliban’s military commander for Nuristan, denied that Fazlullah had led the attack and said he was not killed in the fighting. Munibullah said that only Afghan Taliban were involved in the fighting.
On May 31, Afghan commandos and US soldiers launched a counterattack to retake the district. More than 600 troops and policemen, backed by air, artillery, and attack helicopters drove the Taliban out of the district after two days of heavy fighting.
Just days later, the US troops and Afghan soldiers withdrew from Barg-e-Matal, after setting up security outposts for the police in the region.
The Barg-e-Matal district is a known Taliban transit area to and from the northern Pakistani district of Chitral. Large numbers of former Hezb-i-Islami fighters aligned with renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his top battlefield commander Kashmir Khan are also active in Barg-e-Matal. Criminal elements who dominate the illegal lumber trade and gem mines in Barg-e-Matal are also affiliated with Hezb-i-Islami commanders.
Last summer, the Taliban took control of Barg-e-Matal for several months after a similar attack. US and Afghan forces were deployed to the region to help local Nuristanis eject the Taliban, but the forces later withdrew. Barg-e-Matal borders the district of Kamdish, which has been under Taliban control since US forces withdrew from combat outposts last fall after an attack by a large Taliban and al Qaeda force.
The withdrawal of US forces from the outposts in Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province has provided the Taliban and al Qaeda with safe havens in the region. The Taliban are using these new safe havens to stage attacks in the north. The neighboring provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan, particularly the Jurm district, have seen a spike in attacks over the past year. Afghan intelligence officials have previously intercepted rogue Pakistani Frontier Corps personnel and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate agents penetrating Badakhshan from Kunar over the past year. The provinces of Badakhshan and Tahkhar have been peaceful up until the past year.
The US withdrawal from outposts in Nuristan and Kunar has also provided the Taliban with major propaganda victories. The Taliban released tapes showing large-scale assaults on the US outposts followed by scenes of the Taliban occupying the abandoned bases. Weapons and ammunition that had been hastily abandoned by US and Afghan forces were displayed by the Taliban in the tapes.
Last fall, ISAF began withdrawing forces from remote districts in Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province as part of its new counterinsurgency plan that emphasizes securing major population centers over rural areas. According to ISAF commanders, the remote provinces of Nuristan and Kunar will be dealt with after more strategic regions in the south, east, and north have been addressed.
The outposts in Nuristan and Kunar were initially created in 2006 as part of a plan to establish a string of bases to interdict Taliban fighters and supplies moving across the border from Pakistan. But the plan was not completed, because US forces were diverted to the south in Kandahar after the Taliban began launching increasingly sophisticated attacks.
• 25 Taliban dead in Nuristan airstrike, Pajhwok Afghan News
• 50 rebels dead in Nuristan, Pajhwok Afghan News
• Afghan forces kill 50 insurgents, Xinhua
• Afghan Commandos Clear Village, Kill Large Group of Insurgents in Nuristan, ISAF press release
• Taliban lay siege to a district in Nuristan, The Long War Journal
• Hundreds of militants storm Barg-e-Matal, Pajhwok Afghan News
• Barg-e-Matal deadly clashes leave 70 militants dead, Pajhwok Afghan News
• Report on fighting in Nuristan, Radio Azadi
• Afghan commandos retake eastern district from the Taliban, The Long War Journal
• Taliban take control of district in Nuristan, The Long War Journal
• Nuristani Taliban commander denies Fazlullah killed, The Long War Journal
• Mullah Fazlullah reported killed in Afghanistan, The Long War Journal
• Pakistani Taliban assault district center in Nuristan, The Long War Journal
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