Afghan security forces killed and wounded 25 “foreign fighters” during an operation last night in a district in the Afghan northeast that was recently overrun by the Taliban.
“Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis” were among those killed and wounded during an Afghan operation in the district of Barg-e-Matal in Nuristan, Jamaluddin Badr, the governor of Nuristan province, told Reuters. The term ‘foreign fighters’ is used by the US military and Afghan officials to describe members of al Qaeda and allied terror groups in the region.
The foreign fighters were killed while crossing into Barg-e-Matal from Pakistan, Badr said. “We are aware of the situation here now that al Qaeda and other elements will try to infiltrate into Afghanistan,” he told Reuters. “We have launched an operation to control border infiltration.”
Today’s clash with al Qaeda fighters takes place just two days after US special operations forces and CIA personnel killed Osama bin Laden and his son during a raid in Abbottabad deep inside Pakistan.
The clash in Nuristan also takes place a week after the International Security Assistance Force reported that it killed 25 al Qaeda fighters in an airstrike in the neighboring province of Kunar. Since September 2010, four senior al Qaeda commanders have been killed in Kunar and one more captured [see LWJ report, Saudi al Qaeda leader killed in Kunar airstrike].
Today’s clash and the airstrike in Kunar contradict claims that al Qaeda has only 50 to 100 operatives in Afghanistan. These claims have been made by top US intelligence and military leaders, including most recently by General David Petraeus, the commander of ISAF.
Nuristan is a Taliban and al Qaeda haven
The district of Barg-e-Matal has been the scene of several large battles between Afghan and Taliban forces. During the summer of 2010, the district changed hands between the Afghan government and the Taliban four times.
The Barg-e-Matal district is a known Taliban and al Qaeda transit area to and from the northern Pakistani district of Chitral. In addition, large numbers of former Hezb-i-Islami fighters aligned with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his top battlefield commander Kashmir Khan are also active in Barg-e-Matal. And criminal elements who dominate the illegal lumber trade and gem mines in Barg-e-Matal are also affiliated with Hezb-i-Islami commanders.
Barg-e-Matal borders the district of Kamdish, which has been effectively under Taliban control since US forces withdrew from combat outposts in the fall of 2009 after an attack by a large Taliban and al Qaeda force.
Less than six weeks ago, on March 29, the Taliban overran the nearby district of Waygal. Afghan police and officials abandoned the district center after hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters attacked from four sides. [See LWJ report, Northeastern Afghan district falls after Taliban assault]. Waygal, or Wanat as it is also known, is said to remain effectively under Taliban control.
In the fall of 2009, 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.
The withdrawal of US forces from the outposts in Nuristan and Kunar provinces 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. In the past, Afghan intelligence officials claimed to have intercepted rogue Pakistani Frontier Corps personnel and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate agents penetrating Badakhshan from Kunar. The provinces of Badakhshan and Tahkhar had been peaceful up until 2009.
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.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.