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Afghans Demand Intervention After 'Pakistani Taliban' Attacks

An Afghan family look on from their house in the mountains of Nuristan Province. Locals say Islamist militants have crossed the border from Pakistan and taken over whole districts.
KONAR, Afghanistan -- Local Afghan officials have called for a military intervention in the country's northeast after scores of suspected Pakistani Taliban fighters overran several districts in Nuristan, a remote province bordering Pakistan.

Ghulamullah Nuristani, the security chief in Nuristan, says the militants captured the Kamdesh and Bargmatal districts of Nuristan two weeks ago and have torched dozens of homes and threatened to kill local villagers who work for the Afghan government.

Nuristani has called on NATO and the Afghan government to intervene, insisting that the small contingent of local police is powerless to stop the militants in Nuristan, from where U.S. forces withdrew in 2009.

"If anybody opposes them, the insurgents burn their homes and threaten to kill them. I have witnessed several houses being burned and seen many of the inhabitants beaten," Nuristani says. "Until the government intervenes, we don't have the resources [to fight back]. We can't do it alone."

It's not clear where the militants are from. Nuristani says they are members of the Pakistani Taliban, who control the Pakistani side of the border alongside Al-Qaeda operatives and fighters from the Hizb-e Islami group headed by notorious former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Calling For Help

Aziz Rahman, a village elder in Kamdesh, describes the militants as armed and wearing black clothing. He says the militants have set up a shadow government, opening local offices and collecting taxes from local residents.

"Kamdesh is under the control of the Taliban. The men in black clothing are here. They have opened a Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice," Rahman says. "They are teaching religious material and are telling people to do the right things. If people violate the rules, then they get punished."

A Pakistani Taliban commander talks with journalists in the Bajaur tribal region, where the militants have a strong presence.
A Pakistani Taliban commander talks with journalists in the Bajaur tribal region, where the militants have a strong presence.
Rahman says the new rules include a decree that states that all men must grow long beards and refrain from smoking tobacco. He says dozens of militants are roaming the streets in SUVs and searching locals at mosques and bazaars to ensure the new rules are being followed.

Villagers receive lashes and beatings if they violate the rules, he adds.

Mawlawi Ahmadullah Moahad, a member of parliament from Nuristan, issued a warning to the government on the deteriorating situation in Nuristan when he addressed parliament on March 24.

Moahad told parliament that the militants had crossed the border from Pakistan and had evicted hundreds of villagers from their homes and replaced them with families from the Pakistani town of Chitral, which is across the border in the Bajaur tribal agency.

Moahad said the government had so far ignored his pleas for military intervention in Nuristan and he has accused the NATO-led coalition force of failing to act.

Locals who have fled Nuristan to neighboring provinces tell RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that many people have died at the hands of the militants.

With few roads and communication networks in Nuristan, the reported deaths could not be independently confirmed.

U.S. Forces Pull Out

The recent incident in Kamdesh and Bargmatal districts is the first major confrontation since October 2009, when U.S. forces withdrew from the area after several deadly attacks that left 17 soldiers dead.

In July 2008, nine NATO soldiers were killed after some 200 heavily armed insurgents using machine guns and rocket propelled grenades attacked several Afghan military posts from their bases in Chitral.

A U.S. Army humvee patrols in Nuristan Province in April 2009, after coalition forces pulled back from outlying bases there.
A U.S. Army humvee patrols in Nuristan Province in April 2009, after coalition forces pulled back from outlying bases there.
Only a few months later, in October 2009*, some 300 insurgents raided Camp Keating, the main NATO military base in Nuristan. Referred to as the Battle of Kamdesh, the base was nearly overrun, with more than 100 militants, eight U.S. soldiers, and seven Afghan soldiers being killed in the ensuing fighting.

Four days later, U.S. forces withdrew from all four of their bases in Nuristan, as part of a plan by General Stanley McChrystal to pull forces out of small outposts and relocate them closer to urban centers.

The cross-border attacks fuelled tensions between neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose governments accused each another of failing to deal with the militants. Afghanistan also accused Pakistan of launching hundreds of rockets into its territory.

Long Oppressed People

Nuristan, a remote and mountainous region, has a long history of violence.

Nuristanis, who many historians claim are descendants of an ancient Greek community who settled in the region after the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great, have long been persecuted by various Afghan leaders.

With their pagan religion and own ancient language, the small community was repeatedly targeted by successive Afghan kings who ransacked Nuristan and forced the inhabitants of the region, formally known as Kafiristan, or land of nonbelievers, to convert to Islam.

The name of the area was subsequently changed to Nuristan, which means land of the enlightened.

The arrival of religious extremism in Afghanistan has added to the plight of the Nuristanis, many of whom face a growing battle to save their language and their traditional ways of life.

* This article has been changed to correct the date of the Battle of Kamdesh to October 2009. We regret the error.

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by Rohullah Anwari in Konar
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.