Afghan forces, Taliban battle for control of Kunar

Afghan security forces claimed to have beaten back a Taliban assault on several districts in the remote northeastern province of Kunar, while the Taliban has said it has launched “a full-scale operation” and has claimed success.

The Taliban launched its assault on the districts on the evening of May 15. The Afghan military claimed it killed 22 Taliban fighters and wounded five more, and suffered no casualties while repelling attacks on “the security posts located in Shegal, Watapur, Chapadara, Marwara district and several other areas,” Khaama Press reported.

In a statement released on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban claimed it killed “as many as 22 puppets,” or Afghan security personnel, and wounded “a large number of them” during “a full-scale operation in eastern Kunar province.” The Taliban said that five of its fighters were killed and three more were wounded. According to the Taliban, it targeted “military units, bases as well as government facilities in the provincial capital of Kunar province and other district [sic].”

The Taliban maintains a significant presence in Kunar, and routinely overruns district centers such as Marawara and Dangam. As of late March, the Taliban does not claim full control of any of Kunar’s 15 districts, but does claim to control 80 percent of Marawara, Khas Kunar, Sarkano, Shegal, Dangam, Asmar, Nari, Nurgul, Tsukai, Narang, Watapur and Chapa Dara, and 20 percent of the provincial capital of Asadabad. FDD’s Long War Journal has assessed the Taliban’s claim of territorial control to be credible.

Withdrawal from Kunar fed the Taliban insurgency

Kunar province has remained both a battleground and a haven for the Taliban and allied jihadist groups such as al Qaeda, Laskhar-e-Taiba, and Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran since US forces withdrew from the province in 2010. US government designations of Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran operatives indicate that these two groups maintain training camps in Kunar to this day.

The US withdrawal from Kunar in 2010, which took place as US forces were surging in Afghanistan in an effort to defeat the Taliban, was influenced by a July 2009 report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), entitled “Kunar and Nuristan, Rethinking U.S. Counterinsurgency Operations.”

In the report, ISW claimed that the US presence in Kunar’s remote valleys, and not jihadists based there, was driving the insurgency, which was being carried out by “locals.”

“The presence of US forces in the Korengal generates violence and undermines US efforts to bring stability and security,” according to the report’s summary. “The resistance in this area is confined to locals in the valley. It does not accelerate the insurgency beyond the valley.”

However this premise was quickly disproved as US forces withdrew from remote areas such as the Korengal and Pech valleys and the Taliban and allied forces began to assault military bases and district centers throughout the province. Additionally, the US killed numerous al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders and fighters in airstrikes throughout Kunar, including in areas where ISW claimed that the insurgency was driven by local Afghans.

Additionally, the ISW report gave weight to the idea that the remote districts in Afghanistan are not as important as the population centers.

“Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan requires less interdiction on the borders and greater security in the population centers,” the ISW summary noted. During the surge, the US followed this approach, and focused its efforts on key areas, primarily in southern Afghanistan, while leaving the Taliban alone in more remote districts (for instance, the district of Baghran in Helmand remained under Taliban control even as US forces flooded the province).

The Afghan and US militaries have placed an emphasis on securing population centers at the expense of ceding control of remote districts to the Taliban. In its most recent report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted that the the Afghan military is “placing less emphasis on less vital areas.” Previously, the US military justified the loss of territory to the Taliban by claiming the Afghan government’s “new Sustainable Security Strategy” calls for abandoning districts that are “not important.”

The Taliban, on the other hand, has said that it relies on its bases in the remote districts to put pressure on Afghanistan’s more populous districts. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Taliban seizes a district in Uruzgan, and Capturing Sangin an ‘important victory,’ Taliban says]

The result of the Afghan and US strategy is that, according to SIGAR, 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban. The Taliban claims it controls or contests 50 percent of the country.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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