South Asia

Journey to Afghanistan's Taliban badlands

Boy watches a US patrol in Wazir Bazaar
Image caption What happens in areas like Wazir Bazaar could shape Afghanistan's future

It is a bright summer morning and US soldiers from the 101 Airborne Division along with the Afghan National Army and Afghan border guards are patrolling the picturesque village of Wazir Bazaar in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The village - on the border with Pakistan - appears deserted and empty as an American helicopter gunship flies low over the snow-capped White Mountains to provide cover from the air.

But the insurgents they are looking for have vanished into the valley, leaving only a roadside bomb behind.

Gen Aminullah Amarkhel, commander of the Afghan border police in the east, is leading the charge.

Eminent credentials

A veteran of the war against the Soviet Red Army, he knows this terrain only too well.

Image caption The area is constantly switching hands between Nato and Afghan forces

Gen Amarkhel assessed the situation from his armoured vehicle before stepping out to meet local people.

But unlike other areas, there was no warm reception for the highly decorated officer. Only three villagers - one elder and two young men - came forward to talk to him.

"Have you seen the Taliban? Where are the Pakistani, Arab and Chechen fighters?" the general asked the villagers. But they did not respond.

"I fought the Soviets here," he said. But such eminent credentials make no difference.

"We don't know about the Taliban," the elder said. "We work in our farms in the day and during the night, we don't know who is here."

Increasing violence in Nuristan - and in other border provinces of Laghman, Kunar and Nangarhar - poses a significant security threat.

It was not difficult to understand why no-one was keen to talk about the presence of Taliban. This area, like many others, alternates between Taliban and government control.

Stealing money

"I cleared the recruitment test for police, but didn't get the job. They asked for $1,000 in bribe," one of the young men said. "I refused to pay."

Image caption Local people are reticent in front of US and Afghan troops

The general tries to offer reassuring words.

"Come with me and I will make you an officer in the border police," he said.

But his offer is flatly rejected.

"No, we are fine here," the man says.

This enraged the general.

"They are lying that there are no Taliban," Gen Amarkhel said before he was moved out of the area by his bodyguards.

They feared for his safety. Suicide attackers often pose as villagers to attack senior officers.

American forces let the Afghan soldiers do the house searches.

In the past, international forces have been accused of kicking in doors, swearing and sometimes opening fire on civilians.

But villagers say Afghan forces are equally bad. Afghan soldiers have been accused of stealing money and jewellery in the past.

Poor intelligence

As the soldiers looked for a Taliban commander responsible for a series of attacks in the area, the challenge was obvious: the Afghan forces not only have a weak presence in rural areas, they also lack intelligence about the whereabouts of Taliban commanders.

This was all too apparent when troops apparently found the house they were looking for.

There was one problem, though. It belonged to an Afghan National Army soldier. It was here that the Taliban commander was believed to have taken refuge.

Ten years after the Taliban were toppled from power, poor intelligence such as this has repeatedly failed Afghan and coalition forces in rural Afghanistan.

The villagers do no want to take any chances. They know that the army and police will leave after the operation, but the Taliban will remain.

"The government is here during the day and the Taliban are here during the night," a frustrated villager said.

Among those killed by the insurgents were a well respected local counter-terrorism official and an engineer reconstructing irrigation canals and bridges.

Other targets for the militants have included a headmaster who was severely thrashed because he refused to shut a school for girls and a cleric who received a death threat for failing to stop locals from joining the police and army.

Porous border

"This is the Islamic Emirate of Taliban," an aid worker from the area told me.

Image caption The Taliban have repeatedly attacked girls' education in the area

"Music is banned at weddings, clean-shaven men are beaten up, government spies and informers are killed and you are made to pay 'usher' [a 10% tax on income]," the worker said.

So uncertain is life in this part of Afghanistan that he recently had to relocate to the eastern city of Jalalabad after receiving death threats.

An officer with the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, says that the insurgents are "not short of money, resources or manpower".

He said things have reached such a low point only because the government has failed to seal the porous border with Pakistan.

"It is easy for foreign fighters - Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens - to carry out attacks here and then run for shelter in Pakistan," he said.

Afghan intelligence officials say that night operations carried out by the US and Afghan special forces broke the back of the insurgency in the White Mountains area.

But since then, the government has failed to secure gains on the ground.

"You need to have a larger presence in these places," one NDS officer said. "You should help people with water, irrigation canals and prevent the Taliban from taxing and intimidating people. The operations are just wounding the snake. Once the snake recovers from its injuries, it becomes even more dangerous. You need to kill the snake."

A senior Afghan official in the interior ministry in Kabul admits that mistakes had been made.

"Not maintaining enough forces on the ground and the lack of reconstruction have contributed to the problem," he said.

It is rural areas like Wazir Bazaar which will ultimately decide the fate of the military handover from Nato to Afghan forces.

If it is not won soon, the war will be lost.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites