To the relief and concern of many Afghans, the end of international military involvement in their country is in sight.
By August, the first US troops will have left Afghanistan as a start to the gradual drawdown, Canada will have ended its combat mission here, and the responsibility of security for seven areas throughout the country will have transitioned to Afghan security forces.
But as the foreign presence recedes, the situation in Afghanistan’s eastern Nuristan and Kunar provinces may provide a window into some of the challenges that lie ahead. And despite strong antiforeigner sentiment here, many Afghans worry about whether government forces can maintain stability as NATO draws down.
The Taliban's return
US forces have withdrawn from a number of bases here since 2009, but now residents say these areas are effectively under Taliban control. Insurgents based in Afghanistan are now launching attacks in Pakistan, straining international relations.
US and NATO forces say that while some remote areas may be experiencing problems, they can’t stop every incursion. Instead, they say they hope that by focusing on key areas they can create stability in them that will gradually spread to outer-laying areas.
Situated along the eastern border with Pakistan, the provinces of Nuristan and Kunar have seen some of the most violent battles in Afghanistan. In October 2009, insurgents nearly overran a US outpost in Nuristan. The hard hit units located in Korengal Valley in Kunar Province were made famous by the award winning documentary film "Restrepo."
But in late 2009, the US and NATO began closing outlaying bases in an effort to concentrate their forces on protecting population centers in the south as opposed to remote, rural areas. There is now no permanent NATO presence in Nuristan. Last year, US forces closed two bases in Kunar Province and handed one over to Afghan security forces. The Taliban have used this to their advantage, calling the departure proof that NATO forces have lost.
“It’s made it easy for the Taliban to take over any district,” says Haji Sakhi Mashnai, a member of parliament from Kunar and head of the parliament’s security commission. “If they lose in the east, it doesn’t make a difference how proud NATO is of its achievements in the south.”
Many locals agree that the dearth of government or NATO forces in large parts of both Kunar and Nuristan has created an opening for Taliban forces to easily enter the country and establish havens. From there, locals say they can easily move throughout the districts or into parts of Kunar without an established military presence.
“If there is insecurity in Nuristan it can affect Kunar and then spread out to the Northeast and then the rest of the country,” says Noor-ul-haq Ulumi, a former Afghan Army general. “If the government ignores these sorts of provinces, then the government may as well just secure Kabul and forget about the rest of the country.”
The new focus
While these reports are a point of concern for NATO officials, they don’t see them as a serious problem for the overall strategy. Given the sheer size and mountainous terrain that US forces in Kunar must cover, it would be unrealistic for them to attempt to control the entire area.
“We are buying time and space for people in other places to partner with ANSF and ultimately destroy insurgent networks elsewhere,” says Capt. Tim Blair, the Alpha Company commander for 2-27 Infantry battalion in Kunar.
In the new, more populated, environments, US forces say they’ve had to modify the way they implement the military’s counterinsurgency strategy. Traditionally, soldiers clear an area of insurgents, establish a permanent presence to hold it, and then start to develop the area. With their limited manpower in Kunar, this isn’t an option.
“Because of the resources and the terrain, we’re not really going in and clearing these villages and huge swaths of land,” says Maj. Dominick Edwards, 2-27 Infantry Battalion’s executive officer. “Rather than clearing, we’re just kind of extending our influence into the area through a lot of different ways [such as networking with tribal elders] and we’re seeing some results.”
Still, this month, insurgents mounted a mass attack on four, small Afghan border police bases in the Kamdesh District of Nuristan. Almost two-dozen soldiers were killed and several of the bases overrun, though quickly reclaimed.
We may have to take some short-term losses, concedes Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, commander of the 2-27 Infantry Battalion responsible for part of Kunar and Nuristan. “Then, as we get the resources and the capabilities, we’re going to slowly spread out from there.”