Insecurity in Badakhshan

by Joel Hafvenstein on 9/2/2010 · 3 comments

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.

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Joel Hafvenstein September 2, 2010 at 9:02 pm

On that last point: of course Kunduz is an open sore of violence and insecurity, which just seems to get worse every year. But the wave of insurgent violence that has spread through Badghis, Faryab, and Sar-i-Pul over the last 2-3 years has been more shockingly contagious than the violence in Kunduz, destabilizing previously quiet areas across geographic and ethnic lines.

Dad September 8, 2010 at 10:25 am

“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.”

Are you absolving those who committed the heinous murders because of their ignorance of who’s friend or foe in a particular community context?

Joel Hafvenstein September 8, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Not at all. I thought it went without saying that murdering civilians (particularly humanitarian workers) was a heinous crime.

Rather, I’m defending the IAM team’s judgment that traveling to Nuristan via Kuran-wa-Munjan was a reasonable risk — because of the strong community acceptance they enjoyed. The insurgent groups based in those areas generally give safe passage to humanitarian NGOs whom locals will vouch for. As in most other parts of Afghanistan, the local Taliban don’t want to antagonize the locals by chasing away all aid work (just the aid work that comes with pro-government baggage). The Nuristani Taliban’s spokesman has publicly condemned the murders.

The IAM team knew that they were still exposed to risk from non-local Taliban and bandits, but they were willing to take that risk to bring medical care to rural Nuristan. They knew the terrain they were getting into. Their courage was extraordinary; their murders tragic and criminal.

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