by Bilal Sarwary
March 20, 2013
(a little over a year ago)
Mountainous Nuristan is one of the most volatile and inaccessible provinces in Afghanistan. It is also one of its most insecure. Could other parts of the country go the same way?
Nuristan is geographically cut off from the rest of Afghanistan and has next to no infrastructure, few medical facilities and endemic corruption.
It has long been a haven for foreign militants and – with the Afghan army all but absent on the ground – is in imminent danger of being over-run by the Taliban, local officials say.
Nuristan was handed over by Nato last year and the alliance will be hoping it is not a template for other security transfers to Afghan forces as foreign troops prepare to leave by the end of 2014.
Provincial police chief Gen Ghulamullah Nuristani says four of Nuristan’s eight districts are on the verge of falling into militant hands.
“Pakistan-backed foreign fighters launch regular raids on Kamdesh, Barge Mattal, Doab and Waygal districts,” he told the BBC.
Another official offers an equally grim prognosis, arguing that the government is allowing it to sleepwalk towards disaster.
Governor Mohammad Tamim Nuristani, the man responsible for securing and administering the province, makes no effort to hide his frustration.
“We have made several requests for help, but still the central government does not help. Nato has also ignored us.”
The alliance for its part accepts that there are challenges in Nuristan, and that it will be a “tough fight” to rectify matters.
Nuristan has some of the poorest communications in Afghanistan, and no road link with Kabul.
We managed to find some space on a military helicopter carrying the first high-level central government team to visit the province in more than a year.
Information and Culture Minister Sayed Makhdoom Raheen was leading a team of senior officials tasked by President Hamid Karzai with assessing the situation in Nuristan. His conclusions are hardly likely to make for encouraging reading.
We followed Mr Raheen’s cavalcade as it passed through the main bazaar of Parun, the provincial capital, kicking up plumes of dust.
As soon as the minister and his team arrived at Governor Mohammad Tamim Nuristani’s residence, they were ushered into a large hall teeming with villagers and tribal elders.
Tempers soon began to fray.
“When will we get roads, doctors and teachers? We are sick and tired of the empty promises made by Kabul,” one tribal elder shouted from the back.
“Deaths during pregnancy and childbirth are common here,” a second man said.
“There isn’t a single house in all of Nuristan that has not suffered because of the shortage of doctors or medicines.”
Another tribal elder pointed out that it is not only the locals who are victims of “Kabul’s apathy”.
“Even the provincial government has been ignored by Karzai’s administration,” he said.
“Most ministries do not have offices or trained employees.”
A police commander present in the hall said his forces suffered a serious shortage of weapons, ammunition and equipment.
“When we ask Kabul for reinforcements, they are either sent late or not sent at all,” he said, adding that his men had to work for months without salaries.
It’s not just Kabul’s fault – local corruption plays a big role too.
A court in Kabul recently sentenced the former provincial police chief and the former governor – along with several other officials – to six years in jail for stealing 29 million Afghanis ($568,000; £354,000) from police salaries. The former governor spent only a month in jail before being freed on bail.
“In one district, there were police only on paper,” a politician told the BBC.
“Officials withdrew salaries for hundreds of policemen, but actually there were not even 10 policemen on the ground. So the district of Waygal fell to the Taliban.
”It has been held by them for the last two years, and I don’t see the government having a healthy enough appetite to retake it.”
His concerns are echoed by a tribal elder from the west of the province where a group of armed men recently assaulted a group of doctors and nurses.
Some of the doctors were abducted and released only after ransom money was paid.
“The government in these areas does not exist,” said the elder.
Another local politician complained that two districts on the border with Pakistan – Barge Mattal and Kamdesh – had been holding out against the Taliban for six years with “no help from the government”.
Minister Raheen says the government “is doing ok” in Nuristan but many things still need to be done.
“For a long time not enough attention has been paid to this province, because of war and because of its location,” he told the BBC.
“Of course there are some problems. Roads are very bad – this is one of the main problems. The government should take care of the roads as soon as possible.
He said he would explain “all the problems of the people and the officials to the cabinet and to the president” when he got back to Kabul.
Nato Brigadier Adam Findlay insists the province has not been abandoned – pointing out that fighting in Afghanistan is now restricted to 17 provinces, Nuristan being one of them.
“We are supporting the Afghan national security forces. But we acknowledge it is a tough fight,” he said.
Governor Nuristani, however, sees a silver lining in the dark clouds over Nuristan.
“We have been ignored so much that it is now not possible to ignore us any more.” he said.
“Things cannot get worse. Now, they will only improve.”
Given the reality on the ground, few would agree.