First, Take Nuristan: The Taliban’s New Afghan Plan

Time.com

Historically, Nuristan province has been key to power in Afghanistan, and the militants and their non-Afghan allies are slowly taking control there

Every morning at 8, Maulawi Zahir heads into Waygal district center, a remote mountain village of stone houses stacked almost vertically up granite slopes. As the undeniable man in charge of the Afghan village, the Taliban leader is there to hear and settle disputes. But despite his group’s ascendancy, he struggles to burnish his credentials among his constituents, even in an area where loathing for NATO and the Afghan government runs deep. “People aren’t happy, but they pretend to be,” says one local trader. “They dislike the Taliban as much as they dislike government.”

Zahir’s attempt at daily dispute resolution is important in one respect: for the first time in almost a decade the Taliban are administering an Afghan district unmolested. In fact, Waygal has been almost completely abandoned by NATO for the past three years. For the insurgents — and their non-Afghan militant allies from Pakistan and Arabic-speaking countries — it is the most visible step in a longer term strategy to turn Nuristan, itself virtually given up by the alliance since 2009, into a militant hub and a staging post for attacks on strategic targets, including the capital, Kabul.

Still, it is hard going for the Taliban. Local commanders don’t exactly have the same agendas as the foreign fighters with visions of global jihad. Elsewhere in the province, on occasions when the militants have massed, Afghan government commandos and their U.S. mentors have scrambled from bases lower down the valleys to disperse them. Last Wednesday, as Taliban fighters attempted to storm Du Ab district center in Nuristan’s west, U.S. warplanes killed more than 100 in a series of bombing runs, reportedly including civilians and a convoy of Afghan police. After NATO bombs killed several children in southern Helmand province on Sunday, President Hamid Karzai complained loudly. NATO apologized for the civilian casualties. Karzai has yet to comment on the Du Ab strike although his government has been broadly supportive of the Nuristan campaign, with the Interior Ministry promising to reclaim areas lost to the Taliban.

NATO is quick to point out that the sustained fighting in Nuristan is a testament to the toughness of the Afghan police on the front lines. That is undoubtedly true, but it misses the point that the Taliban attacks are part of a rolling effort to drive the government out of Nuristan altogether. The Taliban has three objectives in mind: to take Nuristan; storm Asadabad, capital of neighboring Kunar province; and undermine NATO’s plans to hand a third territory, Laghman province, over to the Afghan government.

“The number of attacks has been shooting up,” says a Western security analyst. “Bases are getting smashed, there are [illegal] checkpoints on the road every day.” On May 1, when the Taliban announced their nearly nationwide spring campaign, Asadabad bore the brunt of the assault: three mortar attacks on a U.S. base in 36 hours and assaults on the prison and police headquarters, in what may well have been a hint of things to come.

Indeed, history is not on NATO’s side. The 1978 uprising by landowners and clerics, which led to civil war, the virtual collapse of the government and ultimately the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, began in eastern Nuristan and spread quickly to Kunar. “Trouble here can break the central government,” said Qari Ziaur Rahman, a regional commander for the Taliban who is also a leader of the Punjab-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in a 2008 interview. “Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar.” Whether the Taliban and their allies can pull off a successful assault on Asadabad is questionable, but there seems little doubt they’ll try. For its part, NATO has redeployed troops to the valley linking Waygal with Asadabad in what looks like an attempt to lock the door.

But the Taliban and their allies have “a very definite plan” to launch attacks in neighboring Laghman province, Western security analysts say. There, NATO is already handing over security of the provincial capital, Mehterlam, to Afghan forces, and the rest of the province is expected to follow suit next year. If the Taliban can seize Nuristan’s western fringes, they’ll have a free run from the Pakistani border all the way to Laghman, where provincial officials are already said to be glancing nervously at their unruly neighbor.

There is, it’s true, a sense that many local Taliban fighters in Nuristan want nothing more than to remain in splendid isolation. But with “most of the authority and the decisionmaking” in the hands of the foreign fighters operating in the region, according to Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul think tank, there are grander agendas afoot. While the withdrawal of U.S. troops has dampened the insurgency in some respects, it has also given the hodgepodge of global jihadist groups in the region freer rein.

According to one Afghan official, members of the Pakistani Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammad and other groups alien to Afghanistan are regularly present in Nuristan. Western diplomats say that links between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda are stronger in Nuristan and Kunar than anywhere else in the country — and that Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmir Islamist militant group backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, is a growing presence. The group is blamed for the massacre of a party of aid workers in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, next door to Nuristan, in 2010.

Earlier in May, an explosion rocked a house in the Nuristani village of Chatras, killing two Arab fighters thought to belong to al-Qaeda, two retired Pakistani soldiers, three local Talibs — and the 12-year-old boy they were drilling in the craft of suicide bombing. “After the instruction, they fitted the jacket on him,” the Afghan official told TIME, “And he said, ‘O.K., should I walk like this?’ ‘Yes, yes.’ ‘And I should press this button?’ And he pressed the button and exploded.”

The influx has brought its own problems, with clashes between local Taliban commanders and die-hard outsiders. In a stark illustration of the tension, a Lashkar-e-Taiba commander called Maulawi Ahmad last winter ambushed the shadow governor of Nuristan, Jamil Rahman, who is Zahir’s boss. Rahman had publicly upbraided Ahmad for kidnapping engineers working on a road that would improve life for local communities. Ahmad’s men reportedly beat Rahman with sticks until they broke his arm. Many foreign militants flowing into Nuristan continue to see such foreign-aid projects as legitimate targets.

It remains to be seen whether these interlopers from Pakistan will have better luck taming Nuristan’s wild valleys than NATO has. But even if they’re unsuccessful, the situation — a weak government under siege by local insurgents and tensions deepening between the region’s myriad factions and strongmen — offers a sobering picture of what the rest of Afghanistan could look like when NATO leaves.

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