Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.
Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.
Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.
While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.
Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).
The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.
There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.
Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.
The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.