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.
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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 than Mohmand. The withdrawal of ISAF forces from the Kunar-Waziristan area has made Pakistan’s efforts to effectively go after the terrorists in its tribal areas virtually impossible. If Khorasani is in Kunar, which he is, then you can bet Fazlullah too is opposed to the Taliban council favouring talks with Islamabad.
Why did the Americans, who had asked Pakistan’s army chief in vain to oust the Afghan Taliban from its territory of North Waziristan, decide to leave Kunar? Many American commentators criticised the decision taken in 2009 and couldn’t make sense of the reason given: Kunar’s 70,000 population was too small to fight for when more densely populated provinces required ISAF presence; in any case the ANA was there to take care of the Taliban. The more plausible reason for leaving Kunar is a tit-for-tat response to Pakistan’s stubbornness to keep the Afghan Haqqani terrorist network on its soil.
Before the latest massacre of “sleeping” ANA soldiers, the Taliban had, in April 2013, killed 13 of the ANA’s “highly regarded” combat unit from the 201st Military Corps, compelling Pakistan’s then army chief General Ashfaq Kayani to predict that the ANA would evaporate in the face of the Taliban onslaught after the ISAF withdrawal. But this onslaught would be facilitated from Pakistani territory and the ANA would not be able to hot-pursue the infiltrators. Drones would continue to occupy centrestage.
The backlash has started before the onslaught, however, and it is coming from the Pakistani Taliban, which has relocated to the “ungoverned spaces” of Kunar, threatening the peaceful idyll of Chitral, in addition to the tribal agencies Pakistan thinks it has tamed through military operations. Kunar is where al-Qaeda and Pakistani Wahhabi-Deobandi terrorists have formed their symbiotic alliance. The most dreaded terrorist organisation, Lashkar-e-Toiba, was formed here by a Saudi-trained Pakistani scholar who now heads a renamed jihadi non-state-actor organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore. America has used drones to target the leaders in Kunar and has met with patchy success. In June 2012, an ISAF airstrike killed Khatab Shafiq, a Pakistani citizen who served as the LeT’s leader for Kunar, indicating that once the Americans leave Afghanistan, Kunar will serve as the headquarters where Arabs and the Taliban will plan and lead operations inside Pakistan. It will also be the training centre for warriors culled from the “emirate” of Pakistan’s tribal areas.
According to a well-known website watching al-Qaeda, Pakistani Qari Ziaur Rehman, killed in 2013 by a drone, was an al-Qaeda and Taliban leader, operating in Kunar as well as across the border in Mohmand and Bajaur. Kunar is the future capital of the “emirate” that will straddle two borders, and neighbouring Nuristan will be its hinterland. In 2012, the strength of al-Qaeda was measured by its dominance in nine out of the 15 districts of Kunar. The Pakistani army is attacking North Waziristan and likely using its “observer” drones to pinpoint Taliban militants and their Uzbek, Turkmen and Arab affiliates. But to achieve lasting success, it will have to attack the Kunar-Nuristan area in Afghanistan. When this happens, it will reveal the past mistakes made by Islamabad in comprehending what Pakistan is up against. It will be doing to Afghanistan’s sovereignty what it accused America of doing to Pakistan’s when it attacked the terrorists inside Pakistan.
As Taliban leaders go, Baitullah Mehsud was “flexible” enough to oblige the deep state in Islamabad by striking at proposed targets. Later, Hakimullah was a prickly customer and prefered a less-murky relationship with his victims. Now, the shift of Taliban headquarters to Kunar has moved the “emirship” from the Mehsud tribe to a man from Swat. But he appears more pathologically focused on killing than even Hakimullah.
America has helped Pakistan’s latest change of policy towards North Waziristan by holding off drone attacks, but once the Americans are gone, Islamabad will have to pick up the broken shards of its Afghan policy and realign with new forces in the region. It is already disenchanted with its old proxy, Mullah Omar, the future “emir”, and has not talked to the non-Pashtuns of northern Afghanistan in years. Its non-state actors are already quivering with rage at its reversion to the “talks” policy. Kunar will be its nemesis.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’