The siege of Parun and the mystery of the Du Ab airstrikes

Miles Amoore  has lots of fresh detail on the Taliban’s takeover of Nuristan in the Sunday Times, including the siege of the provincial capital, Parun:

So far a militia led by a former Taliban commander and backed by Afghan police has held the Taliban at bay outside the city. But the blockade has brought the city to its knees, sources say.

Nato denies Parun is under siege but acknowledges that “insurgent activity on the roads … up to Parun has restricted civilian and Afghan police movement”.

Amoore also provides the only account to appear in the mainstream media of the NATO airstrikes that took place in Du Ab (or Doab or Do Ab, you choose) on May 25:

When the planes screeched over Doab, the only police commander who had refused to surrender, Commander Said Rasoul, was having lunch with his men next to a field of wheat. The Taliban, who had entered the main town that morning, had been taunting Rasoul over his radio, his cousin Qari Daoud said.

“Come and fight us, you son of Jews. You cannot defeat us, you slave of the infidels: all you can do is surrender,” the insurgents shouted over the radio from their position a few miles away. Rasoul replied: “You dogs of Pakistan. Your masters are Punjabis and Arabs. Come and fight me here if you’re not cowards.”

As he ate, Rasoul saw green smoke rising from the wheat field and sent a man to investigate. It was the last order he gave. “The airstrike killed him and 13 of his policemen,” said Daoud, the district governor. “The man in the field was the only one who survived the attack. The smoke was a signal for the planes to strike.”

Nato and the Afghan interior ministry believe the bombardment killed 68 insurgents, 13 policemen and three civilians, but analysts put the toll far higher. They say six hours of bombing left more than 100 people dead in the valley, including 30 policemen.

A Nato source emphasised the difficulty of distinguishing from the air between police and insurgents because many officers had fled in civilian clothes. To add to the confusion, the Taliban had been wearing police uniforms, Daoud said.

The precise details are unlikely to become clear. Police have refused Afghan journalists access to Doab’s main town and the head of state-controlled television in neighbouring Laghman province said his station had signed an agreement with the government not to report on the killings.

The strangest thing about the Du Ab airstrikes has been the government’s lack of response – and the consequent way the story disappeared. National media ran with it as soon as the news filtered out but since then there’s been a resounding silence. At the same time as he rebuked NATO for killing 14 in Helmand, President Hamid Karzai said precisely nothing about the bombing runs that had killed, by several estimates, between 110 and 170 people including 40 to 100 civilians (those figures are best guesses by reliable sources but there has been a wide spectrum of death tolls ranging from 30 to 300).

When I began asking about this in the immediate aftermath of the strikes, sources told me that IMC, a medical organization that is one of the few able to operate in Nuristan, was being denied access to the province by the Afghan government at a time when its services were most in need. Another source told me that civilians trying to flee the fighting in Du Ab were being sent back.

So I wrote to NATO:

…Credible sources have told me that civilians have been prevented from leaving Du Ab, and that an NGO that operates in Nuristan, IMC, is being prevented from delivering medical assistance, even though this is one of its regular functions.

In light of the fact that no independent investigators have been allowed in to Du Ab, this is troubling. It gives the impression that an information operation designed to minimize fall-out from the May 25 airstrikes is underway. This is certainly the conclusion that multiple sources, Western and Afghan, have drawn.

Can you confirm, deny or otherwise shed light on the claims I’ve been hearing? And is there any indication yet when the JIAT and Afghan investigation team are likely to report their findings..?

A public affairs officer said she would try to find “the latest” but I’ve had nothing back despite several follow-ups. And if it’s understandable that NATO would like this story to disappear, the government response has been more puzzling. A Karzai spokesman told me: “I don’t have any information about this issue, I can’t say anything.”

Two possible explanations are that the government is willfully covering-up this incident; or, more likely, certain aides are keeping the president in the dark. Amoore observes that:

Events in Nuristan also highlight the crippling impact that corruption has on the Afghan government’s ability to maintain law and order.

For years MPs and Afghan officials have lobbied President Hamid Karzai to remove Jamaluddin Badar, Nuristan’s governor, accusing him of abuses that have driven many Nuristanis into the arms of the Taliban. Government documents seen by The Sunday Times accuse him of selling wheat stolen from the World Food Programme on the black market. The documents also claim that he and the police chief maintain a “ghost police force” of 2,300 men whose salaries they pocket.

Badar was unavailable to comment. But Afghan officials say the Karzai government has neglected Nuristan for years. “The president did not even bother to condemn the killing of civilians in the Doab airstrikes as he has done in other parts of the country,” said Obaidullah Nuristani, an aide to Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival.

Is Nuristan just not important enough to bring to the President’s attention? Do Nuristanis with vested interests want to keep the spotlight off the province? Are the Taliban in-roads so damaging to the government’s image that everyone would rather just forget about the place? Food for thought.

Full disclosure: Amoore is a pal of mine.

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