Badakhshan province has often been portrayed in the media as a relatively safe place, in large part because the nascent trekking/tourism industry there makes for a great story. After the second of two recent lethal attacks by insurgents on aid workers in Badakhshan, I’ve heard some friends musing on whether this spells a major sea change in security in the province.
I don’t think it does. Badakhshan is a big province with an intricate mountain geography; like Afghanistan itself, anything you say about one part of the province is likely to be untrue of another district, and major differences can emerge over relatively short distances. For one obvious example, it contains both the most laid-back gender relations in rural Afghanistan (among the Ismailis of the Wakhan corridor) and some of the most conservative (stonings for fornication have taken place with appalling regularity over the years, and you can’t escape the burqa in the major towns).
Security-wise, Badakhshan has been a mosaic for the last decade. Parts are still as safe as they’ve ever been. The Wakhan is insurgency-free, and I’d recommend that anyone who can make the trip go and see it while you can. Other areas have never really been safe — and no one knew that better than the NGOs who carefully operated there. The province is on major drug and weapon trafficking routes, and for many years now it has been a significant insurgent transit route from Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan into the north.
Back in the early Karzai years, Badakhshan used to be seen as inoculated against insurgency; it was never overrun by the Taliban back in the 1990s, and its Tajik majority harbors lots of anti-Pashtun sentiment. But the province also has a deep tradition of conservative religiosity, and in certain districts — notably Warduj — there are mullahs who have long sheltered Taliban fighters and kept the local jihad broiling against NATO troops. There are many other remote districts where insurgents can move with relative freedom, due to lawlessness or pragmatic local leaders.
In those areas, it’s no surprise when things go wrong. The Oxfam murders this week took place in Shahr-e-Buzurg, a district which has been considered unruly and a high crime area since my first arrival in Badakhshan in 2006. The IAM murders earlier in the month were in the far south, Kuran-wa-Munjan, on the Nuristan border. Both Oxfam and IAM knew those areas, were known there, and benefited there from robust community acceptance — by far the most important security asset for anyone who actually wants to get outside the wire, anywhere in Afghanistan. But acceptance is at its weakest in the transit zones. Insurgent groups who just crossed the Pakistan border don’t know enough to discriminate in their targeting.
All those insecurity factors in Badakhshan have been present for years, and despite the high-profile attacks this month, it seems to me that the province isn’t fundamentally less stable than it was. Off to the northwest — for example in Faryab — is where the fighting is dramatically more intense this year. As far as I can see, the insurgency is spreading across North Afghanistan, but more violently and effectively from the west than the east.