Afghanistan war: Deadly ambush of medical mission roils one of safest provinces

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the ambush of a medical mission that killed six Americans, one Briton, one German, and two Afghans. The attack highlights the difficulty of limiting the reach of insurgent activity in the Afghanistan war.

Ahmad Massoud/AP
The office of the International Assistance Mission on Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ten members of an International Assistance Mission medical team, including six Americans, were shot and killed by militants as they were returning from a two-week trip providing eye and other health care in remote villages of northern Afghanistan.

In one of Afghanistan's safest provinces, 10 members of a medical mission – including six Americans – were killed by militants. The attack highlights the trouble coalition forces have had containing the reach of insurgent activity in the Afghanistan war.

The six Americans, one Briton, one German, and three Afghans, were returning from a two-week mission providing eye treatment in Nuristan Province. All were found shot in Badakhshan Province except for one of the Afghans, who escaped.

Some reports suggested the attack might stem from criminal activity, but a Taliban spokesman claimed the killings, telling the Associated Press that the group was "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity." The group, International Assistance Mission (IAM), is a Christian organization, but on its website the group says it does not use aid to further a religious view.

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Badakhshan is located in the far northeast of Afghanistan and is home to few ethnic Pashtuns, the group from which the Taliban draws its membership.

However, "dry tinder" for militancy remains: The province lies on a major opium smuggling route and some former commanders are searching for work. Meanwhile, the Taliban have recently overrun several bordering districts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, imperiling the stability of one of the country's calmest provinces.

"I believe we have this risk of losing some areas of Badakhshan, either through the criminal groups, former commanders who are allied with insurgents, and some who are part of the insurgency," says Waliullah Rahmani, head of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

In the second quarter of this year, Badakhshan ranked 5th safest out of 34 provinces in terms of attacks initiated by armed opposition groups, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

Signs of slipping security

But there are signs that the security is slipping. In July, a roadside bomb struck a police patrol, killing five officers.

In late May, this reporter was awoken at midnight in Baharak, a city in the center of Badakhshan, by three rocket explosions and 10 minutes of gunfire. The next morning, the district governor, Dawlat Mohammad Hazem, blamed the attack on the Taliban.

"I think they were Taliban, because a week ago people have seen them walking around here in the city," said Mr. Hazem in late May. The Taliban had also delivered half a dozen night letters in recent weeks. "This is new."

The letters, he said, urged mullahs to not say prayers for national police and Army soldiers who are killed, and asked residents to go to mosque five times a day for prayer and not to send their girls to school.

The rockets damaged the police post just yards away from where Hazem was sleeping in his office. His family urged him to return to his home district in the wake of the attacks, but the district governor said he would stay.

Group with long experience in Afghanistan

The attack on the international medical team took place in Badakhshan's southernmost district, Kuran wa Munjan. The group had been performing medical work in neighboring Nuristan Province. The head of the IAM told the Associated Press that the group decided to drive back to Kabul via Badakhshan because they thought that was the safest route.

IAM has been working in Afghanistan since 1966. The fallen team is reported to have had members with long experience in the country.

"We hope [the attack] will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year," read a statement posted on IAM's website.

An aid worker based in Badakhshan says that Kuran wa Munjan borders two districts in Pakistan that had been taken by the Taliban two months back.

And another bordering district, Nuristan's Barg-e-Matal, has switched hands four times this year between insurgents and coalition forces. Last month, several hundred Taliban seized control of the district before being pushed back by NATO and Afghan troops.

Analysts say the Taliban have contested Barg-e-Matal as a way to open an infiltration route into northern Afghanistan, including Badakshan Province.

Infiltrators to Badakhshan could find collaborators among former commanders of Hizb-i-Islami, a faction of which is allied with the Taliban. Mr. Rahmani says the province is home to some jobless former commanders who are potential recruits for insurgents.

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