The Al-Qaeda instructor spent an hour schooling his protégé, a 12-year-old Afghan boy, in the art of suicide bombing.
Flanked by retired officers from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Arab militant is said to have shown the boy how to approach his target calmly before pressing the handheld button that would detonate the explosives.
At the end of the lesson, the trainer strapped a suicide vest over the child’s clothes and told him to demonstrate what he had learnt.
“Okay, so I walk like this,” the boy said as he walked across the living room of a house built from mud and stone in the hamlet of Chatras in Nuristan province. “And then I press this button. Like this?”
Before anyone could stop him, he pressed the detonator. The blast killed seven men — two Al-Qaeda trainers, three Taliban fighters and, according to Afghan officials, two agents from a shadowy unit of retired ISI agents called S Wing, which supplies military advisers to the insurgents.
“Maybe the boy’s family sent him over to the Taliban or perhaps they chose him because he was an orphan,” said a senior Afghan source, whose account of the incident was confirmed by the province’s police chief.
The boy and four other suicide bombers were being primed to cause chaos in Parun, Nuristan’s capital, at the start of a planned Taliban assault aimed at seizing control.
The explosion three weeks ago stalled their advance, but not for long. Last week the Taliban had Parun surrounded, according to Afghan officials and western analysts.
The Afghan government was forced to airlift supplies into the city by helicopter to deal with shortages of butter, flour, fuel, tea and sugar. “It’s medieval. They’re trying to starve the population so that they rise up against the government,” said Ahmadullah Moahid, a local MP. “You can’t even get snuff.”
If the Taliban enter Parun, it will be the first provincial capital to fall since the start of the decade-long war.
Insurgents have already regained control of much of Nuristan, including the entire district of Waygal, where they have smashed televisions and beaten up men without beards for failing to comply with their interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.
The Taliban are not the only militants to have overrun this isolated land of soaring mountains, green valleys and stone hamlets since US forces withdrew last year. Nuristan has also seen an increasing number of well-equipped professional fighters from Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, a violent Kashmiri Islamist group suspected by American intelligence of receiving ISI support.
The influx of extremists over the border from Pakistan, which Afghan forces have proved powerless to prevent, may serve as a warning to American and British forces preparing to hand over security in parts of the country in the weeks ahead.
One of the most pressing questions for Washington, as President Barack Obama considers how many troops to pull out when a promised withdrawal starts next month, is whether Afghan forces are capable of holding back the Taliban. In Nuristan the answer is that they are struggling.
Western journalists are barred from Nuristan. So for the past two weeks The Sunday Times has travelled through the neighbouring provinces of Nangarhar and Laghman to piece together accounts of what is happening from sources including MPs, local and western officials, doctors, diplomats and security analysts.
Most agree that the Taliban’s re-emergence began last year when the Americans, who had lost 120 soldiers in Nuristan and neighbouring Kunar province, began to move out to focus on more heavily populated areas. They left behind a governor, an intelligence chief and a police chief but the three men preferred to spend their time in Kabul.
On March 26 this year the Taliban kidnapped, robbed and then released 42 policemen who were returning to their garrison in Waygal district after collecting their wages from the provincial capital.
Two days later insurgents moved in on the district’s main town, positioning rockets and heavy machineguns on surrounding ridges. Outnumbered by 10 to one, many of the 28 remaining police officers fled. The Taliban swiftly occupied the base, grabbing police weapons and pickup trucks.
“The Taliban now drive around in the stolen police vehicles. Some of them wear old police uniforms. They looted everything and distributed the spoils among their fighters,” said an Islamic scholar who was in the town when it was overwhelmed.
The Taliban appointed a governor and police chief, along with a judge and a head of intelligence. A Taliban radio station now blares out the only form of entertainment permitted — religious songs with no music — and dancing at weddings has been banned. However, to win the support of local people, the insurgents allowed the World Food Programme and a medical charity to bring in aid.
After the fall of Waygal — the first district that insurgents have seized and held since the war began — they shifted their focus to other parts of Nuristan. In late April they launched hit-and-run attacks on police and army checkpoints outside the main town in the district of Barg-e-Matal.
A policeman watching from near the town’s police headquarters gave information to Taliban mortar teams to ensure they struck their targets, before he fled into the hills to join them. The next day Afghan commandos and American special forces landed by helicopter, coming under immediate heavy fire. A Nato missile struck a cave from which a sniper had pinned down a commando unit. The Taliban retreated into the mountains.
Unperturbed, the Taliban advanced towards Parun, setting up checkpoints along the southern approach, six miles from the city centre.
Fierce clashes involving up to 100 Taliban fighters and foreign militants broke out along the road on May 11 when a series of police checkpoints were stormed. The Afghan government deployed a rapid reaction team from its intelligence service, but its helicopter hit a tree as it approached its landing zone, injuring six.
So far a militia led by a former Taliban commander and backed by Afghan police has held the Taliban at bay outside the city. But the blockade has brought the city to its knees, sources say.
Nato denies Parun is under siege but acknowledges that “insurgent activity on the roads … up to Parun has restricted civilian and Afghan police movement”.
On May 22 Taliban militants overran another district in Nuristan, this time Doab. Massing on ridgelines, they ordered the police in the main town to surrender. Most of the police fled. The militants sneaked into the town centre at dawn, hoisting their white flag in place of the government’s.
Afghan commandos backed by US special forces attacked the mountains that day. F-16 strike planes dropped heavy bombs and helicopter gunships strafed insurgent positions, forcing the Taliban to flee. But according to sources the Taliban continue to control most territory in Nuristan.
Last Friday a Taliban rocket attack on the police garrison in Doab’s main town killed one policeman, heralding an expected attempt to recapture it. According to Nato, Nuristan and the neighbouring province of Kunar now have an estimated 2,500 Taliban, 2,000 fighters from Hezb-e-Islami, a group loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord, 300 men from Lashkar-e-Taiba and related organisations and as many as 40 from Al-Qaeda.
Nato’s gradual withdrawal from the region has forced its troops to rely on airstrikes and joint air assaults with the Afghan army. But the largest airstrike in Nuristan to date ended in disaster, according to MPs and local sources.
When the planes screeched over Doab, the only police commander who had refused to surrender, Commander Said Rasoul, was having lunch with his men next to a field of wheat. The Taliban, who had entered the main town that morning, had been taunting Rasoul over his radio, his cousin Qari Daoud said.
“Come and fight us, you son of Jews. You cannot defeat us, you slave of the infidels: all you can do is surrender,” the insurgents shouted over the radio from their position a few miles away. Rasoul replied: “You dogs of Pakistan. Your masters are Punjabis and Arabs. Come and fight me here if you’re not cowards.”
As he ate, Rasoul saw green smoke rising from the wheat field and sent a man to investigate. It was the last order he gave. “The airstrike killed him and 13 of his policemen,” said Daoud, the district governor. “The man in the field was the only one who survived the attack. The smoke was a signal for the planes to strike.”
Nato and the Afghan interior ministry believe the bombardment killed 68 insurgents, 13 policemen and three civilians, but analysts put the toll far higher. They say six hours of bombing left more than 100 people dead in the valley, including 30 policemen.
A Nato source emphasised the difficulty of distinguishing from the air between police and insurgents because many officers had fled in civilian clothes. To add to the confusion, the Taliban had been wearing police uniforms, Daoud said.
The precise details are unlikely to become clear. Police have refused Afghan journalists access to Doab’s main town and the head of state-controlled television in neighbouring Laghman province said his station had signed an agreement with the government not to report on the killings.
Western analysts and Afghan officials say the Taliban’s objectives in Nuristan are simple: to demonstrate they can run a district, score propaganda points by seizing a whole province and destabilise the surrounding region.
In the heavily Talibanised province of Kunar, to the south, residents in Asadabad, the capital, are already seeing Taliban checkpoints appearing at night within two miles of the city, according to Afghan and western sources. Security analysts warn that from their bases in Kunar and Nuristan, the insurgents could sever Nato’s overland supply route from Pakistan, which includes the main road from Kabul to Jalalabad.
“What can Nato do but send a few helicopters with a few troops in every now and then?” one analyst asked. “They have tried establishing outposts but look what happens — they have taken some of their heaviest casualties doing that.”
Nato argues that repositioning its soldiers has empowered Afghan security forces while freeing its own troops for more joint strikes against the Taliban. But the inability of Afghan police and army units to hold on to ground in Nuristan without Nato support will worry commanders who are due to hand over parts of the country to the Afghans in a few weeks.
Mehtar Lam, capital of the neighbouring Laghman province, has already seen early signs of the Taliban’s intentions in areas where security is about to be transferred. Taliban gunmen assassinated the husband of a local MP last week.
Events in Nuristan also highlight the crippling impact that corruption has on the Afghan government’s ability to maintain law and order.
For years MPs and Afghan officials have lobbied President Hamid Karzai to remove Jamaluddin Badar, Nuristan’s governor, accusing him of abuses that have driven many Nuristanis into the arms of the Taliban. Government documents seen by The Sunday Times accuse him of selling wheat stolen from the World Food Programme on the black market. The documents also claim that he and the police chief maintain a “ghost police force” of 2,300 men whose salaries they pocket.
Badar was unavailable to comment. But Afghan officials say the Karzai government has neglected Nuristan for years. “The president did not even bother to condemn the killing of civilians in the Doab airstrikes as he has done in other parts of the country,” said Obaidullah Nuristani, an aide to Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival.
In Washington, Obama is under pressure from senior members of his administration to withdraw as many as 30,000 troops, starting this year. Some argue the death of Osama Bin Laden has provided an opportunity to cut back spending on a war that is costing $10 billion a month. They want a reduced force to focus on counterterrorism and the training of Afghan soldiers and police.
Military commanders argue that this could be disastrous because it could mean reversing gains they claim to have made in the past year and ceding territory to the Taliban.
Although events in Nuristan appear to bolster the military’s argument, local officials warn that no amount of military muscle will ultimately solve the crisis. “A corrupt government wants to keep this all a secret,” Nuristani said. “Nuristan is about to fall, Nato has no strategy and the Taliban’s morale is higher than ever.”