Ganjgal Valley, Afghanistan – The Taliban has made a comeback in Afghanistan’s strategic Kunar province since the drawdown and departure late last year of US-led coalition troops.
“When the Americans were here, we had fighter jets bomb Taliban hideouts, we had drones patrol Kunar’s night skies,” said Haji Pacha, an Afghan local police commander. “This kept the Taliban on their toes. They were not as bold as they are today.”
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The tranquillity of northeastern Kunar’s lush, green mountains and crystal-clear rivers belies a more violent reality. The province borders Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, was one of the first places in Afghanistan to have an al-Qaeda presence, and saw some of the fiercest clashes between US forces and the Taliban.
Over the past decade, the US invested heavily in Kunar, building schools and constructing bridges that connected isolated communities cut off by rugged, mountainous terrain. But already, the province’s limited infrastructure has begun to crumble because of a lack of maintenance and fresh investment. Its schools have few students, and clinics lack medicine and doctors.
The Taliban’s regrouping has emboldened the armed group to set up makeshift courts in Kunar province, which operate according to strict interpretations of Islamic law.
“It’s been more than three months, but the pain just refuses to die,” said the 52-year-old, staring blankly ahead at the terraced fields dotting the mountainside.
Zarjaan is mourning his beloved daughter who, he said, became a victim of the Taliban’s brutal justice.
A group of black-turbaned Taliban fighters descended on his village one hazy morning, accompanied by a bearded man, who the villagers later realised was a Taliban “judge”.
The judge, sitting on a plastic chair in the village square, ordered the fighters to bring 22-year-old Abida before him. Two men dragged a wailing Abida from her husband’s house, and also brought a man whom, Zarjaan claimed, was not from the village.
The charge sheet, which the Taliban judge read aloud before the gathered crowd, accused 23-year-old Bakhtyar of disclosing the position of a Taliban commander to US forces, which led to the commander’s death in a drone strike.
The charge sheet also named Abida, claiming she was guilty of providing shelter to the accused man.
Zarjaan said the entire proceeding lasted less than 10 minutes, after which the judge handed down death sentences to the two accused.
“The man was shot dead, and so was Abida – three times in the head at point-blank range,” said Zarjaan, his voice quavering as he wiped away streams of tears with the tail of his turban.
Zarjaan said his daughter was targeted because he was perceived to be opposed to the Taliban. According to the tribal chief, many Taliban judges are now openly operating in remote areas of Kunar.
“The US presence did change Kunar for the better,” said Farid Mamundzay, deputy minister of policy and technical affairs at the Afghan government’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance.
“There was growth in agriculture, several hydroelectric power projects were completed under their watch, schools across Kunar registered 182,000 students – even a university was opened.”
A senior Afghan official in Kunar province, who requested anonymity for fear of Taliban retribution, said many clinics set up are now without doctors, and the schools lack students because parents are afraid to send their children. Three of the five hydroelectric plants, the official said, have stopped working for want of maintenance.
Many roads paved have seen the asphalt wear off, making it more difficult for farmers to bring their produce to market. And other roads that are still in good shape have turned into no-go zones because they have been booby-trapped with bombs.
|Inside a Taliban court in Afghanistan|
As a result, economic activity in Kunar has come to a standstill. With farmers and traders scared to travel, Kunar is unable to export its abundant agricultural produce, which includes rice, maize, wheat, grapes, and opium poppies.
Instead, much of the produce has rotted in the fields.
Pacha, the Afghan local police commander, is stationed with 30 of his men near the Afghan-Pakistani border.
“The Taliban are crossing the border right under the nose of the Pakistan military,” Pacha said. “During the night, dozens of them come. They know the American jets and drones are gone.”
As foreign forces left Kunar, the Taliban began entering the vacated areas with one of its most potent weapons – a radio station run by transmitters loaded on the backs of donkeys.
The fighters use the radio station, called The Voice of Sharia, to undermine the government and indoctrinate and recruit youths. It is also used to threaten Afghan officials such as Pacha.
“The radio has named me dozens of times, describing me as a friend of the infidels who deserves to be killed,” Pacha told Al Jazeera.
“The radio is a huge propaganda tool, which works well on villagers. It scares them into submission. After one such broadcast last week, I told a group of scared villagers from Nawlay not to pay heed to such propaganda. But one man from the crowd shouted, ‘You can say this because you have a gun. We don’t.”
“I shouted back, ‘Yes, but I have picked this gun only to defend you.'”
Neither the governor of Kunar province, Shuja ul-Mulk Jalala, nor Taliban representatives responded to requests for comment.