The Afghan province is emerging as the future capital of the Taliban’s envisioned ‘emirate’.
On February 23, the Afghan Taliban attacked an Afghan National Army (ANA) military outpost in the northeastern province of Kunar, killed 21 soldiers in their sleep and captured a half dozen who were awake. An Afghan spokesman said the Taliban included “foreigners” and hinted at the participation of warriors from “across the border”, meaning Pakistan. Kunar is not controlled by Afghanistan. The abutting North Waziristan is not controlled by Pakistan. But Kunar lies next to other semi-controlled Pakistani “agencies” like Bajaur and Mohmand, while another “uncontrolled” Afghan province, Nuristan, is contiguous to Pakistani Chitral and Swat semi-tribal areas.
Kunar and Nuristan are two provinces abandoned by the ISAF forces in 2011. The order came earlier, in October 2009: “In line with the counter-insurgency guidance of Army General Stanley A. McChrystal, ISAF commander, ISAF leaders decided last month to reposition forces to population centres within the region.” The reason given to the ANA for leaving the area was that it was sparse, strategically unimportant (sic!), subject to local rebellion that couldn’t be countered (sic!), and must therefore be left to the ANA to prove its battle-worthiness. McChrystal didn’t think of Pakistan then, just as Pakistan didn’t think of America when allowing the Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban to operate out of North Waziristan. Kunar is now where the Pakistani Taliban has converged.
Kunar was historically dominated by Arabic-speaking Afghan-Pashtun clerics educated in Saudi Arabia, and its sparse population had to follow the Wahhabi faith. Before al-Qaeda fled the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan under UN Security Council Resolution 1373, its leaders used to be located here. Ayman al-Zawahiri was here but had his R&R in adjoining Pakistani agency Bajaur. There is a strong suspicion that he may still be staying in Kunar.
Maulana Fazlullah fled Swat in 2010 and joined a like-minded al-Zawahiri in Kunar. The chemistry must have been immediate and deep because, after Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud died in a drone attack in 2013, Fazlullah was chosen as the next non-Mehsud leader with al-Qaeda blessing. His method of persuasion is derived from the demonstrative effect of spectacular killing. If the North Waziristan-based leadership was unhappy with his elevation, it was soon chastened through violence, the latest victim being Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, who had actually held the top post temporarily after Mehsud’s death. He was killed in North Waziristan on February 24. The message was: you will be ruled from Kunar by your leader, Fazlullah. Some put the bland label of Taliban infighting on it.
An important shift of loyalty to Fazlullah happened when another Taliban warlord of Pakistan’s Mohmand agency, Umar Khalid Khorasani, decided to reject the Pakistan-Taliban “talks” by beheading 23 Pakistani troops captured by him two years ago. To emphasise his message, he did it in Kunar rather continued…