For years, Badakhshan Province enjoyed life away from the action, an island of stability as war engulfed the rest of Afghanistan. But as the broader conflict winds down, the northeastern province is offering a bleak view of the future.
That's because NATO last year handed over security duties in Badakhshan exclusively to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Police (ANP), but the transition has coincided with a spike in violence and increased militant activity.
The region is an ideal testing ground of Afghanistan's ability to secure remote areas on its own.
It boasts the types of mountainous valleys and rugged terrain used as safe haven by militants throughout the country. It shares borders with three neighboring states -- China, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. And it is an important transit route for the booming opium trade.
Moreover, its isolation saved it from becoming a main theater of the Afghan conflict, allowing fresh troops to gain much-needed experience before Afghanistan takes over security duties across the country at the end of 2014.
But David Young, a conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says the security landscape has changed as coalition and Afghan forces have focused on securing urban areas, leaving large swaths of rural Afghanistan -- such as Badakhshan – vulnerable.
"NATO forces across the country are focusing their efforts and dissipating resources on the places where they can have the most impact," Young says. "Badakhshan is not one of those places. I fear that any terrain not classified as even moderately urban will take a lower priority and open the door to Taliban infiltration."
This month, heavy clashes between Afghan security forces and militants have been reported. And the ANA has led a weeklong offensive against militant positions in several districts.
At least 50 Taliban fighters were reported dead and dozens injured in the volatile Wardooj district on March 23. The Afghan Defense Ministry, which has sent reinforcements to Badakhshan from neighboring provinces, confirmed three Afghan soldiers were killed and nine others were wounded in the course of the operation.
In one of the deadliest attacks on government troops by militants in recent years, Taliban insurgents ambushed and killed 17 Afghan troops in Wardooj on March 6. Eleven soldiers were kidnapped but later freed in exchange for Taliban fighters in government custody.
Locals in Badakhshan say the government's presence in the province is weak, while the contingent of Afghan troops in the province is too small to oversee security in one of the country's largest provinces.
Salahuddin is a resident of Wardooj, some 60 kilometers east of the provincial capital, Faizabad. He says dozens of locals have died or been wounded in fierce fighting between government forces and militants. The instability, he says, has forced hundreds of families to flee to neighboring provinces.
"The Taliban have attacked the district. There was intense fighting in the center and on the outskirts of the Wardooj," Salahuddin offers in an account of heavy clashes between militants and local forces on March 22, when six residents were seriously injured. "The houses were hit by mortar fire and six people were wounded. Yes, government forces and militants were involved. On one side, there were rockets used, and the other side they were firing mortars. They didn't hit their target, so people were hit."
Sharif, a resident of Germ district, says all the schools in the district have been shut and many homes destroyed. He says locals have fled because they fear they could be used by militants as human shields.
"Every single day there is fighting everywhere. People are pleading [to the government] to stop this."
General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, says that despite the deterioration in security he is confident the ANA and ANP in Badakhshan can defuse the militant threat.
"In those places where a security transfer has occurred, [militants] have tried to target those places," Azimi says. "But thankfully, overall, the security situation in Badakhshan has become better."
This year is a crucial test for Afghanistan's army and police forces, who have assumed control of some 80 percent of the country.
But Young says Afghan forces' failure to secure Badakhshan suggests they are far from ready to take control of the entire country. Afghan security forces suffer from a high rate of desertion, a poor reenlistment record, low morale, and a lack of equipment.
And that can't bode well for Afghanistan, especially its rural regions, says Young.
"What I project is a limited civil war in rural pockets of the east and south, " Young says. "I think that as ISAF or Afghan forces restrict themselves to the cities -- because it doesn't have the number of forces necessary to project into the rural areas -- it will be like counterinsurgency, but Afghan-style. So they will protect the most built-up areas so that the Taliban isn't able to actually take over the entire country."