The Afghan Battle for Nuristan

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by Joshua Foust on 5/11/2011 · 18 comments

Ever since the U.S. withdrawal from Nuristan province, there has been a lot of talk about how al Qaeda and the Taliban will set up shop in the area. And to an extent, that has happened: there are undoubtedly more Taliban and al Qaeda there, and our insistence on paving roads means they have an easier time of moving around than ever before. But that doesn’t mean the province is under the exclusive control of the Taliban.

Yesterday, hundreds of insurgents attacked the provincial capital Nuristan, Parun.

Nuristan province police chief, Gen. Shams-ul Rahman Zahid, said about 400 Taliban fighters launched their assault at dawn, striking government security outposts around a base housing reserve police units some 11 miles (18 kilometers) south of the provincial capital of Parun…

In Kabul, the Afghan military said it would not send reinforcements, while NATO claimed to know nothing about the attacks. There are few coalition or Afghan Army troops in mountainous Nuristan, near the Pakistan border. Asked why he wasn’t dispatching troops, Azimi said that at this point the police were still holding their ground. He said the Afghan army does not have troops stationed in Nuristan because it doesn’t have the personnel available to cover the remote area.

Things are not especially pretty in Nuristan, but it’s important that the small police force in Parun was able to hold their ground without any reinforcement from either the central government or from ISAF. While the Ministry of the Interior has a problem fielding enough personnel to cover the area controlled by the Taliban, incidents like this indicate that allowing the Afghans to stand or fall on their own is not an instant death sentence. Rather, it shows that, placed in charge of their own destiny, they actually do stand a chance.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Johny Matrix May 11, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Please believe me when I say that they were no “400” insurgents engaging the Wama / Parun ANP checkpoints…I still keep in contact with a few Shura members of the lower Waigal. They tell me there are attacks but they are probes and / or attacks from disconnected Taliban cells.

I don’t want to completely oppose your point here because in terms of the great majority of districts in Afg, the ANSF are damn well capable of providing sufficient security (and because of this, I believe we can drastically and safely decrease the amount of coalition troops in the Northern and Western parts of the country)…but N2KL is not that place.

The real question you should ask is: Who do the Wamayi / Waigali tribes go to for judicial issues? I would invite debate upon anyone who states the answer to that question is Governor Badr.

Again, I agree with and support the concept that we should be decreasing troops in Afg…but we can do this smarter.

Joshua Foust May 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm

So, they’re lying about the attacks, but not about being capable?

I’m confused.

Johny Matrix May 11, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Lying is such a hard word for it, I’d call it being dramatic or Afghanisizing…as they did @ Barge Metal. I realize that it looks like I’m calling BS on your post and I don’t want it to sound that way…much appreciation is due to bringing attention to this far distant province.

I would say that it is not an instance where the ANSF is extremely proficient but more so a case of there being enough regional security in the North and West for ANSF to take over. I fear an all to early handover in N2KL to the immature ANSF will come back to bite someone in the end…really wish this little project was done somewhere else where mistakes are not fatal in consequence.

Will May 13, 2011 at 9:54 am

I think it’s standard for ANSF to make exaggerated claims on INS numbers. It happens at almost every liason meeting throughout the country. When I saw the 400 number while reading the WP blurb my first instinct was that it was a dramatic claim. Nice to have it confirmed by someone with experience in that area.

Capt. Monkey May 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I don’t know. I would tend to agree that the initial reaction ought to be skepticism, and I don’t know if it’s implausible or unprecedented for the ACM/AAF in that area to muster those numbers. I think their ability to do so is limited and consequently results in limited occassions… but we can’t rule it out as impossible.

Capt. Monkey May 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Would enjoy the opportunity to take this discussion to email with you. I’d be interested to know which contacts you have in the lower Waigal, and if you’d be willing to share them. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully for several years to get in touch with a few of the people that I know from that area.

Nisar May 11, 2011 at 10:33 pm

US has brought peace and tranquality in Afghanistan and neighboring countries. These objectives set ten years ago have been met. Only war profiteers want US to stay here and go bankrupt. I challenge anybody to say that the objective set ten years ago of US have not been met. The objectives of war mongers of course have not been met. They want war to boom here just like budget deficit in USA.

anan May 12, 2011 at 1:31 am

War booms in Afghanistan because of a neighbor. Sadly for Afghans it is likely to last a long time.

I thought ISAF’s mission was to help surge the capacity of Afghan institutions and help Afghans win their own victories. ISAF has only barely begun this process, and halfheartedly and dysfunctionally at that. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has been a rentier state for centuries [with GIRoA revenue often below international grants.] Afghanistan will need substantial international grants and enablers for decades to come. That is unless letting much of Afghanistan being ruled by a foreign backed proxy is acceptable.

Steve Magribi May 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Things are not so dramatic at all. From what I am hearing here in the neighborhood, the last action was a long due training exercise for the last several training courses which have just finished in Mohmand and Kunar.

They send the units in for a final operation before they break off and get attached to their future units.

Everyone knew this was not a big offensive. Parun is not a key target for this year’s plan, but Laghman and the Kabul Highway area are. So these newbies will be moving into front line expansion area units for actions during the next summer. Happens every year, and is to be expected as the insurgents continue moving into the Central Northern War Fronts.

The ANSF did not make any real moves and why should they? The force walked in, did its thing and moved back into the hills for dinner. They all know this was a training exercise and happens every year. The only difference is that this year it was much safer because of the lack of coverage by ISAF assets on the target area. To ISAFs credit however, the whole movement was delayed quite a bit because of the Kunar operations last month.

More to come later at other targets closer to Capital Region. Then we will see if the ANSF deploy as they should.

anan May 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Agree with Steve’s very fine comment.

“To ISAFs credit however, the whole movement was delayed quite a bit because of the Kunar operations last month.” Interesting. Thanks for the info.

Steve, can you share what you are hearing about 2-201 ANA in Kunar?

Johnny Matrix May 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Steve, would be interested in hearing what went down in Marawara District

Steve Magribi May 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm

The District is basically going Salafist-through two generations of marriage. There was a tribal spat two weeks ago, which threatened the insurgent medical facility and the supply route, which brought in some more T Front line units via pissed off cousins from across the border, who got mad at the local guerrillas commander…some fighting for two minutes, then Shura’d out, end of current story…I think the final resolution was ten sheep from the outsiders, and a supply of fuel oil..something like that. It did not get too drawn out and no one had to surrender anyone to the other family sides.

I heard this from Haji Daudallah who is an old friend, he lives up there, but spends a lot of time in Abad. He is not one the wahabbis, but everyone needs to act like one now. The whole area is in a neutral truce situation which blows up from time to time . Neutral in the sense that they know which way the wind is blowing and will say nothing to help ISAF (or hurt them too much)and try to make as much money as they can from both sides…

They are laughing a lot about this war as it moves away, Kunar is not really the front line anymore and more of a rear area transit hub now. In that sense it is much calmer now. Feels more like a rest area now, the air is calmer, and IEDs are down a lot. You can always tell what is going on by watching the farmers, if they are out and about, the scene is clear…This year a lot of folks walking along the roads and no sense of imminent problems.

Johny Matrix May 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm

“They are laughing a lot about this war as it moves away, Kunar is not really the front line anymore and more of a rear area transit hub now.”

That was my worry…

Capt. Monkey May 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm


Steve Magribi May 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm

For those of us on the Eastern Front, what we are seeing is the direct result of the “all out, damn the logic, this is what we are going to do-with the Marines of course” move to Kandahar and Helmand in 2007. Fifty percent of a limited force sent to sit on two provinces. A show of force or a show of folly?

Big country, limited resources and a bad tactical dependence on FOBs and a strategic mistake have given the Insurgents the open road through Kunar and into the mainline provinces surrounding Kabul.

This is following the exact pre Soviet Withdrawal role for Kunar and really makes a mockery of the fine work and bravery of so many of our soldiers there in the past four years. I saw this all before twenty five years ago. This time is worse, and the friendlies are the enemy.

Yes, once again “can’t win em all, peace with honor, did the best we could” rings out in the night air, as the Afghans go about their timeless daily rituals..and the war moves West and North once again. No accounting will be done, and some even have been promoted for what has been done here and their errors.

Like the Red Army before us we will have several years to reflect on the leadership and strategy that led to these conditions. Like the Red Army, the guilty parties will be in dachas outside of the Capital enjoying, while the rest of us go on with daily memories of comrades lost and trying days and nights so far from home.

The Afghans have seen this all before, and remain stoic if not a bit amused at another great experiment neutralized by the side of Hindu Kush.

Not much left but the final episodes now as History dares to repeat itself once again. It is amazing to ponder and even more solemn to realize the truth of this entire mess spilling into Pakistan like the flood of last year.

I can hear the tell tale sound of a drone mission, or was the last sound another assassination mission? It is all down to this now. Ten years and all down to this now.

anan May 13, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Steve, you are right on regarding Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Ghazni, Nangarhar, Laghman, Baghlan and Wardak.

Funny thing is that public opinion in Laghman and Nangarhar is anti Taliban and the Taliban has still made gains.

I would argue, however, that the ANSF are making progress in Loya Paktia, Panjir, Parwan, Bamiyan, Kapisha and Kunduz.

As expected, the QST and the Gerdi Jangal Shura are conducting “economy of force” operations in Helmand for now as violence falls significantly from a year ago.

Kandahar is also an “economy of force” operation, and is seeing less AGE operations than a year ago. The prison break and ANP chief assasination were big victories though. And the Mumbai style attack in Kandahar was a PR success.

To my surprise QST and Miramshah Shura [Sirajuddin] do not seem to be contesting Uruzgan and Zabul. Any thoughts on why?

anan May 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm


Curious to hear your thoughts on what should be done tactically [aside from surging ANATC, ANPTC, ANSF capacity.]

Do you support an ANSF lead COIN campaign where the ANSF coordinate tribes and militias with ISAF money and combat enablers? [i.e. let the ANSF lead tribal engagement.]

If so, the ANSF don’t have the resources to conduct nationwide COIN. They have to temporarily cede much of the country and only gradually expand their ink stain as their capacity increases. What areas would you focus on in the short run.

You seem to think that Kunar should be a priority. To actually push the Taliban back in Kunar would take two ANA brigades [8 combat bn HQs, 32 combat infantry companies], and many highly armed and trained ABP [mortars, D30s, grenade launchers which have not been permitted to date.] Which parts of Afghanistan would you thin out the ANSF to resource Kunar?

Another question on Kunar. Why isn’t the Peshawar Shura taking on 2-2-201 ANA in FOB Blessing Kunar? Is it because 2-2-201 has learnt FOB centric force protection from ISAF too well and are not patrolling and disrupting Taliban supply routes?

Johny Matrix May 14, 2011 at 12:23 am

Anan I can answer your last question…the Nangalam Shura has basically lost all of its power due to fear. I talk with elders’ sons via email and facebook, and on two separate occaisions there was an attack during the convo. The ANA do not leave the FOB…they are starting to receive casualties because of this. One OP to the East was attacked a week ago and two ANA were killed…this OP was never attacked before, it is the one directly above Nangalam. During the night (I guess it was daytime there) of the UBL death speach, 6 rockets missed Blessing and hit Dari Har and killed a kid literally 45 minutes after Obama made the announcement.

If we were FOB-centric (and I agree with you there, my hands were tied when I was @ Blessing), the ANA are that times 2. Specifically, the lower Waigal Valley Shura has given up going to the district center Shura. My correspodance has become somewhat heated with the youth Shura as of late…we promised them so much and they let themselves be seen talking to us in the open and now they are paying for it. My advice is simply to leave…go buy a house in J-bad, most of them can afford it but I am really impressed and inspired by their sense of nationalism. Notice I don’t say tribalism or valleyism, each convo ends with them saying that this is an Afghan valley, not a Pakistani or Arabic (synanymous with Taliban). It’s all they have right now.

One of my terps tells me that Tali walk around Blessing all the time, but his data is hit or miss. If it is true that this suggests rifts within the enemy, which is a good thing.

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