The land of the unconquered
Adriana Carranca is Editor at Large for O Estado de S.Paulo, the leading daily national newspaper in Brazil and is due to join the RISJ Journalism Fellowship Programme in January 2012.
This is the first in a series of weekly dispatches she will be sending from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Badakhshan province in Northern Afghanistan has never surrendered to the Taliban rule, but for how long that will remain the case is uncertain.
There is a unique breeze which blows off the river into the spring fields of Badakhshan Province in Northern Afghanistan. It cools the heat while carrying with it a bucolic sound of whispers. It's as if the winds crossing the green bushes and high slopes, meandering through the valleys where Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains meet, want to reveal a secret. The news cannot be good.
Just three weeks ago, a group of black turbaned gunmen with hidden faces fired at the Afghan National Police headquarters in Jurm District. The tiny and once quiet district lies along the road by the Kokcha River, a waterway linking Badakhshan to the Panjshir Valley – ironically, the only areas of Afghanistan never to fall under Taliban rule. This time, though, there is sense of fear in the air.
In a country ravaged by war, a light breeze may announce the coming of a new season, but also a new campaign of insurgency. During the harsh winters of Afghanistan, the fighters retreat only to return stronger in the spring. And this year they are heading north. "They are getting really, really close," says Tariq, an Afghan risk management advisor to the German troops in Badakhshan.
According to Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), the number of insurgent attacks occurring in the Northeast provinces of Afghanistan jumped to 22% in the first quarter of 2011, up from 12% in the same period of 2010, with events escalating recently in Badakhshan,. So far, 11 attacks were reported using improvised explosive devices as well as rockets and grenades – four just last month alone. Two weeks ago, a Taliban fighter and a border guard were killed in a clash when a dozen militants tried to force their way into Tajikistan on a Saturday night, in the sixth attempted incursion of that kind into the neighbor country.
Seven districts of Badakhshan (25% of the province) are known to have fallen under – or are highly influenced by – Taliban control. According to Tariq, these include: Wurduj and Ragh Shahri Buzurg, bordering Tajikistan; Kishim, one of the most populated and important districts of Badakhshan, as well as neighboring Tagab and Tashkan; Darayem, only 40 km from the province capital Faizabad; and Kuran wa Munjan, where the fighting has been particularly severe.
Bordering Nuristan, an area openly controlled by the Taliban, Kuran wa Munjan hosted what became known last year as the massacre of Badakhshan. Ten International Assistance Mission (IAM) employees (two Afghan and eight foreigners) were shot dead when they stopped for a picnic in the outskirts of Hindu Kush after trekking 100 miles carrying medical facilities between villages. Six of the people killed in the group were doctors. Among them was Tom Little, an American optometrist who had been working in Afghanistan since 1976. Red-dyed long bearded gunmen surrounded the group, led them into the forest, stood each one side by side only to shoot them down, one by one, police said. One month later, two Afghan employees of the aid organization Oxfam were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb near the village of Dawand in the Shar-e-Buzurg district, also in Badakhshan.
In these highly insecure lawless areas, "criminal groups operate freely; aid organizations face serious risks of abduction, theft and other financially-motivated attacks," ANSO reports. The violators always try to infuse a hint of religion to the events, whether by common criminals or insurgents. Among the IAM group hunted and killed in Badakhshan was an Afghan driver named Safiullah, who escaped the massacre after begging for his life as a Muslim, reciting Quran verses.
At the time, the Taliban and another insurgent group, Hezb-e-Islami, claimed responsibility for the attack and accused all other IMA victims of proselytizing. Although those could be opportunistic claims, they show the interest of such groups in destabilizing the area by attributing responsibility to the insurgents and, therefore, creating fear that the government and international forces are losing control of the region.
"The Taliban is using criminal groups in the area, providing them with security in exchange for local support. We don't know who is who, they are all connected now," said Shah Waliullak Adib, the local governor, in an interview given at his highly secured office. He admits to have partially lost three districts to the radicals. In Kishim, a few weeks ago, the militants took full control of the district for one night only to demonstrate their might. In Darayem, village elders are initiating talks with the Taliban under a request by the government.
From the Taliban perspective, destabilizing the north is an effective way to divide the enemy's military forces and make them weaker. When its regime collapsed in 2001, their militants headed south and for years the region concentrated most of the fighting around Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
It was not until one year ago that the face of the Afghan war started to change. By the end of 2008, Pakistan had agreed to allow the United States to conduct drone attacks in the southern border of Afghanistan. When President Barak Obama came to office, in late 2009, he ordered an intensification of such attacks. Cornered, the Taliban began looking north.
"They have always tried really hard to conquer these lands, but only recently have somehow succeeded," says Tariq. According to him, Taliban leader Mulá Omar ordered followers to form a shura (a council of local leaders as rooted in Sunni Islam) in Peshawar, north Pakistan. It would be a sub-council of the main Quetta shura, which is believed to be led by Mullah Omar, who overlooks insurgency operations all over Afghanistan. Under his blessing, the sub-council in Peshawar would be responsible for attacks in the North and Northeastern provinces. The strategy seems to be working just fine.
Kunduz is now the bloodiest battleground in Afghanistan. Until recently, Balkh was considered the safest area in the country with foreigners circulating freely in and out the magnificent Blue Mosque in Mazar-e Sharif. After the recent killing of seven UN officials in April in the compound where they lived following protests against Quran burning by an American pastor, Balkh suffered a reversal.
Neighboring Badakhshan, Takhar has been named by locals as "the kingdom of thugs'" and in the Southern border of the province, US forces left their main bases in October 2009 after unsuccessful fighting against Taliban guerrillas and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami militias. The area known as Nuristan – or 'land of enlightenment' – in which valleys Alexander the Great once made his way through, is now marked on a map at the Ministry of Interior office walls as "under enemy control."
Looking back in history, the people of Badakhshan never favored the Taliban, formed mainly by Pashtum while these are the lands of the Tajiks and Uzbeks, among other small ethnic groups. "They've been marginalized and have suffered many atrocities by the Pashtum, who have ruled Afghanistan for the past three centuries. Many in our community don’t consider them as brothers, but as invaders and oppressors," says Tariq. However, he explains, after 30 years of successive wars, the people of Badakhshan are tired, miserable, hopeless. "Billions of dollars were spent, but people's lives never got better. There is deep corruption, you can barely do any job without handing bribes, and warlords are again in control; those who committed many crimes are only getting stronger and stronger, so there is a huge sense of disillusionment."
His own experience is telling – people will choose between what they have and whatever promises are made by the Taliban. "The insurgency campaign is ongoing and it is fueled by the way our government and the international community do business in the region," he says, leaving the feeling of déjà vu in the air.
Afghan recent conflicts show that a common sense of injustice can be a dangerous tool in the hands of insurgents. It was the frustration with the commanders who expelled the Soviets only to fall into a civil war which facilitated the way of Taliban into power. "The Taliban always used the situation in their favor. They say: look, we will bring Justice, keep you safe, lead you to paradise, and execute these warlords and criminals. It’s a very powerful message,” says Tariq. "After the Soviets, people were willing to welcome the Taliban only because the situation was so bad... If the international community leaves now, it will be just the same".
Violence in the region spreads as the way poppy fields bloom.They are both rooted in economic struggles. The Taliban has managed to convince local farmers to produce poppy by promising cash advances, and protection if anything goes wrong with the police. In 2010, opium cultivation in Badakhshan increased by 97%. In the main harvest time to come, in June and July this year, numbers are likely to rise.
According to a recent report by the United Nations, while production has been down slightly over all because of modest decreases in the Southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the country's largest opium regions, officials expected significant increases in the north and northeast provinces, especially in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Faryab.
Only 16 of the country's 34 provinces are expected to remain poppy free, a decrease from 20 last year. A major source of revenue for the insurgency, dry opium profit jumped 306 percent this year, with prices going up to $281 a kilogram from $69 last year. It is the highest price since 2004, according to UN Office for Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan.
At the same time, according to Tariq, the insurgency has launched a campaign in the mosques of the region. "They knew they would find resistance of Tajiks here, so they don't say they are Taliban, but we have been monitoring a large group of religious individuals who come from Pakistan and try to influence mostly young Muslims to devote themselves to faith – not work, not family, just prayer. They have a very moderate discourse, but what they are really doing is to pave the way for the Taliban to recruit new militants in the future," says Tariq.
In Kabul, the long time commander of Badakhshan, former president and head of the United National Front, the largest political opposition to Hamid Karzai's government, Burhanuddin Rabbani, is getting involved in the so called peace talks with the Taliban. A Tajik from Badakhshan, who fought the soviets and later managed to keep the province away from Taliban, Rabbani was, controversially, the leader to welcome Osama bin Laden, in 1996, when he went back to seek asylum in Afghanistan after being kicked out of Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The common sense here is that bin Laden’s death brings no change. "Ideologically, Rabbani, Al Qaeda, Mulá Omar, they are all the same. These people are mostly driven by self interest, using religion agenda for their own purposes. And they change sides so easily," says Tariq. Once a stopover on the ancient Silk Road, land of rare precious stones – lapis lazuli and ruby being the most famous ones –, Badakhshan is at the mercy of clashes among different regional powers, making the million Afghans who share its beautiful grasslands, savannas and woodlands very apprehensive. While their commanders may sing and dance in all weather, they can only hope for a wind of change.