Nuristan, Kunar, Pakistan and the Taliban: The Nexus

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 7 months ago

We’ve covered the Taliban strategy of using Nuristan as a safe haven, and a base from which to launch attacks against the government of Afghanistan.  Kunar is adjacent to Nuristan, and there may as well not be a border between provinces.  As stated by one Taliban commander, “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.”  For this reason I have insisted on aggressive U.S. troop presence and kinetic operations in both the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, and all along the Pech River Valley.

Thankfully, Tim Lynch of Free Range International could not completely desist from writing about Afghanistan, and he educates us with yet another good post on the current situation in Helmand.

A few months back as they were pushing south, the Marines would run into situations that, for guys like them, are a dream come true.  An ANP commander pointed out a village where his men have hit 3 IEDs in as many weeks and each time the villagers poured out with AK’s to start a firefight.  So, a few nights later the Marines blow a controlled det on the road to simulate an IED hit and when the villains rushed out with their flame sticks they met what we lovingly call the ‘L shaped ambush’.  No doubt (knowing the Lava Dogs) the villains also met Mr. Claymore, were introduced to the proper use of a machine gun section, and were treated to a 40mm grenade shower from those new and super deadly  M32’s.  Bad day.  Not many survived that textbook lesson on the proper use of an ambush squad, but those days are long gone.  Rarely now will somebody shoot at the Marines in southern Helmand, and when they do, it is from so far away that it is hard to notice anybody is even shooting at you.

So the Taliban has returned to doing what guerrillas do when they suck so bad at regular fighting – they rely on the indiscriminate use of  IED’s to fight.  And as everybody in the world (except President Karzai) knows, these IED’s kill and maim vast numbers of innocent Afghans, yet rarely inflict casualties on ISAF units.

Because of a long, flat narrow area, where the population is confined mostly to strips of land in close proximity to the Helmand River and its main canals, the Marines are able to spread out into COP’s (combat outposts) PB’s (Patrol Bases) and OP’s (observation posts) covering the entire AO.  These positions are manned by junior NCO’s and in one PB the senior Marine was a Lance Corporal.   They move positions frequently;  every time the Marines set up in a new one of any size,  local families immediately move as close to the positions as they are allowed and start building mud huts. For them a small band of Marines equals security and the implicit trust shown by this pattern of behavior is something in which the Marines rightly take great pride.

Read Tim’s entire post.  More forces are needed in order to maintain security, but as for the direct firefights, it’s over with the Taliban in Helmand.  They cannot match the U.S. Marines.  The Marines are currently needed elsewhere, specifically, Kunar and Nuristan.

The Taliban are still active there, and are still pursuing their strategy.

“Bullets rained on our house which was close to the site of the clash,” one resident told me. “We were so terrified that we didn’t step out of our house until the next day.”

Another resident said by launching an attack in Mehtar Lam, the insurgents wanted to show that they can still strike at will in any of the seven locations handed over by Nato to Afghan security forces.

In the past month insurgents have killed a judge, a prison guard and a local official in this strategic city known as the gateway to Kabul.

Security handovers like the one in Mehtar Lam are seen as the first step in a lengthy process ultimately aimed to put the Afghan army and police in control of their country by 2014, the deadline for complete withdrawal of Western forces from combat operations.

But judging by developments in Mehtar Lam, the road to transition appears to be far from smooth.

“People live in fear,” said Shah Gul, a barber. “People think that if the security forces can’t protect themselves, how will they protect the people?’”

Insurgents – mainly in the shape of the Taliban or the Hizb-e-Islami militia of former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – are active in many districts of this mountainous province.

Laghman borders the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Kunar.

“This allows insurgents to carry out attacks in Laghman and then escape to Nuristan or Kunar,” said an Afghan intelligence officer.

“By targeting cities handed over to Afghans, the insurgents and their foreign backers intend to prove that Afghan security forces are not capable of protecting their people.”

Just like I predicted.  But in a twist that leverages this lawless area as the trouble-spot of the world, Pakistan is directly involved.

The Pakistani spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), with the help of Taliban, has revived the Al-Huda outfit of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar to target Indians in Afghanistan.

As many as 350 persons have been trained so far particularly to target Indian business interests and development works being executed in the war-torn country.

India’s premier external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), recently reported the development to the Centre. Following the RAW report, security of Indian assets has been beefed up with a view to thwarting any misadventure by the ISI-backed militia.

According to the report, the ISI will provide funds, training and shelter besides intelligence on movement of Indians to the trained recruits of Al-Huda for anti-India operations.

Two training camps were organised recently by the ISI to train the recruits in southern Afghanistan at Chunar and mountainous regions of Nuristan in Afghanistan on Pakistan border, intelligence sources said.

Both — Chunar and Nuristan — are areas dominated by the Hikmatyar group and the NATO forces suffered heavy reverses in the recent past while carrying out operations in these regions. The Hikmatyar group is known for its mastery in ramming explosive-laden vehicles on targetted assets and executing landmine attacks.

India is funding over 300 developmental projects in Afghanistan, including construction of roads, bridges, hospitals, Government office complexes and also the Parliament building of that country. India is the biggest donor country extending aid in revival of the war-torn nation pledging a budget of over $2 billion.

Besides the construction engineers, supporting staff and the personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police guarding the work sites of the ongoing development projects there, the Indian assets in that country also include as many as 24 consulates across Afghanistan and the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Following the inputs, the Indian embassy and the consulates there have been alerted and a security audit of the installations are being carried out to further tighten the security measures, particularly the outer periphery of the office complexes so that any fidayeen attack or blast of an explosive-laden vehicle is checked at a reasonable distance from the perimeter of the buildings, the sources added.

The Taliban had attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul on October 8, 2009 killing 17 persons and injuring 63 others. The Taliban had in the past also targetted work sites maintained by the Indian companies.

The ISI move comes following reverses at the hands of the Americans amid talk of withdrawal of the US forces from the war-ravaged country.

The Pakistani sickness and obsession with India, its own importance in the world, and having access to things (e.g., nuclear weapons, the Taliban, etc.) way beyond their ability to control is working directly against the stability of Afghanistan, the security of U.S. troops, and in fact, the security and stability of the entire region.

Marines to Kunar.  It’s the move that should be made, and sooner rather than later.  If we need more Marines to Helmand in order to pull this off, then so be it.  Someone tell the Marine Corps Commandant to stop playing Iwo Jima, as if we are ever going to conduct a large scale amphibious assault against a near peer state again.  Without chasing and killing the Taliban in his safe haven, the campaign will be lost.



  • DirtyMick

    Herschel, I don’t think you need to send the Corp up to Kunar. The army has proficient light infantry units (101st Abn, 173rd, 82nd etc) and the elements that fought in Kunar have done well. Whats lacking is guidance from Higher. April 2010 ISAF shuts down the Korengal, during the spring offensive, when a new brigade is taking over the AO (327 Infantry). So that summer it was a blood bath, the Taliban controlled the Korengal, and 327 Infantry killed scores of Taliban (200 in a single battalion assault). Then 9 months ago the Army pulls completely out of the Pech and the Taliban effectively control everything west of Asadabad. Now the army realizes they need to go back into the Pech and sends Tropic Lightning back to essentially retake lost ground.
    We have the infantry units to do the job but not a coherent strategy in RC East. If we had a coherent strategy that promoted aggressive killing of the enemy N2KL would be secured with the year

  • Jean

    Herschel, the Corps was in Kunar prior to 2007, not the most effective counter insurgents, but none could question their valor. They did not live among the people and liberally used unobserved indirect fire to transit the Pech. An Army light BCT brings a tremendous amount of force to the fight, but incoherent strategy or insufficient force will hamstring a good plan. Our endless rotations result in a series of small wars, we lose so much in transition/RIP of units. It is disappointing to see units repeat mistakes or fail maintain “key” relationships with locals. It is the Afghan version of ground hog day, except we don’t get the girl at the end of movie…just the heartache.
    I tried to have a candid conversation with an incoming BCT CDR about that AO. He thanked me for my service, tuned me out and did the same stupid BS the last guy did.
    BTW, how many ODA units were in the Korengal/Waygal/Wanat…..they must be wating on the cable or U-Verse to be installed.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Jean. The Corps wasn’t in Kunar in force. And the Corps proved to be great counterinsurgents in Anbar and thus far in Helmand.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that the Army be run out of Kunar / Nuristan. I am advocating that the Corps stop playing Iwo Jima and get their boys to where the fight is. We need a BCT in both provinces, under the command of a MAGTF.

    And DirtyMick, don’t underestimate the usefulness of the MAGTF command concept, and bringing assets out from under control of big Army, even if Army assets are being used within the MAGTF.

  • Jean

    1/3 Marines had coverage of N2K, too much area for even an entire regiment. Anbar and Helmand….different terrain. MARFOR was a disaster. It’s hard to blend forces in that AO so the MAGTF concept could work. What Kunar needed was a combat Engineer Battalion, full RA Civil Affairs Battalion, and a light battalion capable of air assault, partnered with real ANSF . We needed to break the backs of larger formation, discourage local participation in mass attacks and run the Pakistan ETT teams to ground. Get off the FOBs and fight the war. Quit building multi-millions projects that are subject to extortion, put cash in the hands of competent junior leaders. It’s not to late.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    I think you’re letting inter-service rivalry get in the way of your thinking on this. But as to the lack of a strategy in RC East, you’ll get no argument from me.

  • Jean

    It is a tough fight and it has to be team fight. Inter service rivalry has no place on the battlefield. My concern is integration of units in the battle space. Despite the best effort of well l intentioned leaders, it’s hard to integrate units in the battle space. I support use of blended teams, but they must be allowed to train together prior to deployment. Build the A Team, source it, train it, deploy as a team and win the fight. Stop monkeying around with short deployments and multiple RIP/TOA’s in nine month period.

    I do have one Marine joke… I will post it later !

  • DirtyMick

    I’m by no means under estimating the MAGTF what I’m saying is IOT win Kunar and RC East there needs to be more man power. If I recall I think the only combat elements in the Province are two rifle battalions plus the PRT, ADT, SF etc. The Army or Marine Corp needs to put a no shit Rifle Brigade there. With that you can have COP and/or Battle Positions/Patrol bases that mutually support each other and enough man power to aggressivly patrol the AO (without giving up security at the COP or PB) and do things that are rarely done in the area (like set up linear and l shape ambushes for example). If they do that they wouldn’t need to do things like massive battalion assaults ever 4-6 months. From there you need to go into problem areas (watapour, marawara, Matin, Chowkay etc) and clear em out of insurgents, stay there (rifle platoon or Company based off METT-TC) and not leave after a month and turn it over to ANA. There needs to be clear guidance from higher which RC east has lacked for years

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Jean: I think it’s simpler than your making it out to be. Army and Marine elements integrated just fine in Anbar, specifically, Ramadi, and other places as well.

    I’m only harping on this because we currently have Marine assets sitting at Camps Lejeune and Pendleton. We should use them, albeit wisely.

    Once when my son was in Fallujah 2007 (and deployed for several weeks along with one other Marine at a Fallujah IP station to control their AO), some SOF boys came barreling through his AO on their way to Ramadi to pick up some bad guy (in an SUV).

    My son said, in terms that even they could understand: “If you ever come barreling through my AO again like that, with an unmarked vehicle, un-uniformed like that, I’ll light you up like a f****** Christmas tree. And then I’ll laugh about it.”

    The SOF guys came through at other times, but they always informed the Marines, and always had good relations with them after that encounter. Army and Marines can get along after all.

  • Jean

    In early days of war, a Taliban Company was on patrol in search of Marine Recon team. As they moved through a valley, a Marine appeared on Ridge above and began to taunt the valiant warriors, he insulted their grooming habits, table manners, Thursday nights activates, etc. The muj commander dispatched several of his hardened soldiers to deal with this Marine.
    They never returned, however the Marine again appeared on the Ridge above and taunting began again. The insults were horrible- family lineages despaired and questioned, the Prophet mocked, hygiene habits questioned, The Muj Commander sent 10 of his brave fighters to deal with outrage and affront!
    The sounds from the ridge were fierce -, automatic weapons fire and RPGs reverberated through out the valley.
    But then Marine again appeared and proceeded to roll the heads of the brave fighters down the hill towards the company.
    The Muj Commander, then sent his most trusted platoon filled with Uzbecks, Tajeks, Pakistanis and a midget from the local out door meat market. The sounds of the battle were intense and ferocious – tracers fanned out across the sky, the battle cry of the faithful Allah Akbar echoed in the hills. And then silence.
    The midget stumbled down the hill crying incoherently, badly wounded, barely able to talk-
    It’s a trick…there are two Marines on the hill!

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    “Midget from the local outdoor meat market” …

  • Jean

    Its a long story, but he is out there !

  • T2

    Pakistan! ISI! Pakistan.
    Have a read of the book “My life with the Taliban”.
    This whole thing will begin to end when the Marines roll into Quetta. Keep in mind the need for a modern road and railway from the Gwdar Port through the Chagai Hills to the river town of Sar Banadar. We gotta keep the mail and drugs flowing.

  • TS Alfabet

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. At this point, the Commander ZerO has decided that major reductions in force are going to occur in time for the 2012 elections. What good will it do to transfer the entire Marine Corps to A-stan when we are going to just piss it away in another year? There is zero chance that the ANA is going to maintain security outside of Kabul. (Can they even maintain security inside Kabul?). Baba Tim and E2 over at Free Range Int’l make a pretty convincing argument that A-stan is going down the commode in a hurry and, while there may be some bright spots like Helmand, these intrepid contractor/warriors have lived it out, down and dirty. They know whereof they speak.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,Kunar Province,Nuristan,Pakistan,Taliban and was published August 25th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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