THE Taliban fighter, wearing a black balaclava, dark glasses and black clothes, raised a long, thin cane above his head before bringing it down on the villager’s bare back with a deft flick of his wrist.
The villager, identified only as Amanullah, 28, writhed on the grass with his hands tied behind his back as fellow residents of Bala Deh, a village in the remote province of Nuristan, in northeast Afghanistan, looked on. After 70 lashes Amanullah could barely stand when the Taliban untied him.
His crime? Failing to grow his beard long enough.
“We couldn’t do anything except watch,” said Haji Saeed Ahmad, 51, a teacher, who said he had been forced to witness the punishment. “They try to control you with fear.”
Ahmad and others from Kamdesh, a mountainous district of Nuristan, said the Taliban had been beating locals for smoking cigarettes, listening to music or chewing snuff since they arrived three months ago.
The morality police, who dress from head to toe in black, hark back to the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s when the notorious vice and virtue ministry was established to enforce a strict moral code.
The ministry’s 30,000-strong force beat women for revealing any trace of skin, smashed televisions, banned music and kite-flying and forced men to grow long beards.
Today in Kamdesh, residents describe morality squads, their faces hidden by black balaclavas, who behave even more aggressively. “They’re so strict they even beat their own people if they catch them breaking the rules,” a United Nations official said.
The birth of these radical morality squads – the first to appear in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime fell in 2001 – highlights one of the risks inherent in Nato’s plan to pull out most of its soldiers by the end of 2014.
American forces withdrew from Nuristan in 2010. So great was the ensuing security vacuum that, in the months that followed, Osama bin Laden told his commanders that their “first option” was to decamp to Nuristan if they wanted to escape the CIA’s drones in Pakistan.
In a letter to one of his most senior military commanders, the Al-Qaeda chief wrote in October 2010: “[Nuristan] is more fortified due to its rougher terrain … and it can accommodate hundreds of the brothers without being spotted by the enemy. This will defend the brothers from the aircrafts.”
But Nuristan’s security void – a product of American abandonment and Afghan government neglect – not only attracted Al-Qaeda operatives: Pakistani militants affiliated to an array of Jihadi groups entered in even greater numbers, according to Afghan and UN officials, analysts and local journalists.
Over the last two years, an increasing number have sought shelter among the pine forests, soaring snow-capped mountains, lush valleys and stone hamlets that make up one of Afghanistan’s most isolated provinces.
Local journalists who have met insurgent commanders report the presence of Pakistan’s militant proxy Lashkar-e-Taiba, other groups affiliated to the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Salafi militants and ordinary Taliban.
This mix taking refuge along the border with Pakistan has grown so toxic that American Special Forces plan to increase their strike operations in Nuristan to prevent militants from infiltrating neighbouring regions, according to a senior western official.
One of the most high profile leaders to take advantage of the security void is Maulana Fazlullah, local sources and UN officials said.
Nicknamed the “Radio Mullah”, Fazlullah became famous for running a parallel government in 2006 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where he burned down music shops and intimidated barbers who shaved off their clients’ beards. During each of his nightly radio addresses in the valley, Fazlullah read out the names of men he wanted beheaded for violating his rules.
Afghan and UN officials believe the morality police who now enforce the Taliban’s grip over the vast majority of Kamdesh district are Fazlullah’s men.
“They are guided by Afghan Talibs but most of them have Pakistani accents even though they say they are from Jalalabad,” said Habib Rasoul, 34, a wood carver who fled Kamdesh to escape recent clashes.
Men caught at checkpoints or by roving patrols with photographs or music on their mobile phones are temporarily detained, fined and then beaten. Even sporting a shirt collar – the mark of an infidel – carries a punishment of up to 15 lashes on the palm of the hand.
The Taliban’s enforcers also burn down the homes of government employees and, locals say, chop the ears off construction workers for taking money from the Afghan government or the international community.
“Whenever we go near these men, our bodies begin to shake,” said Ahmad, who fled Kamdesh last month with his nine children.
The arrival of the Taliban’s morality police in Nuristan is particularly shocking: the province’s rulers are famous for preventing the former Taliban government of the late 1990s from asserting its control over the land.
But the deployment of American forces to the province in 2004 attracted attention from the Taliban. The mountainous terrain made easy targets of the isolated American bases. The Taliban’s strength in the province grew until, in 2009, 200 insurgents stormed a poorly fortified base in Kamdesh district, killing nine American soldiers.
Months later, American forces withdrew. American commanders stationed there agreed with the move, arguing that the American presence had only fanned the flames of the insurgency.
But with the American departure came the near total collapse of the state: police and officials fled their posts. Some even handed their weapons to the Taliban.
The government in the provincial capital, led by a man accused of stealing police salaries who spent most of his time in Kabul, failed to react.
As a buffer against the Taliban’s influence, the Americans turned to a man they had spent the previous five years hunting. Despite misgivings among President Hamid Karzai’s advisers, they provided weapons and cash to Mullah Mohammed Sadiq, the commander of a rival insurgent faction who had been placed on a special forces hit list for planting bombs and attacking Nato forces in the province.
The decision to support Sadiq worked, at least temporarily, and violence in the region fell. But in September last year, hundreds of insurgents pushed into a valley south of the district centre, overrunning four checkpoints.
As the Taliban then pressed further north towards Kamdesh, seizing control of villages and the surrounding countryside, Sadiq’s men began to run out of ammunition. Morale deteriorated.
With only 74 functioning assault rifles and a handful of half full magazines for each weapon, morale among Sadiq’s men deteriorated.
The Taliban’s stranglehold over the district centre grew so tight that elders were forced to travel on foot across mountain passes to collect salaries for Sadiq’s militiamen from the provincial capital, Parun.
In March, the Taliban began to send vice and virtue squads to patrol the villages. They burned the homes of some government collaborators in Bazigal Valley and abducted others.
By April Sadiq’s militia had not been paid for eight months and began to talk of surrendering, locals and officials said.
Kabul eventually caved in to Sadiq’s demands for reinforcements just as Taliban forces were mustering for an assault on the district centre. Afghan commandos stormed the village of Benuz in mid-April, raiding Taliban-occupied homes. Clashes broke out inside the southern quarter of the district centre, causing civilians to flee.
By the end of the seven-day operation the commandos had killed more than 30 militants for the loss of only a handful of their own. The government and Nato, which supported the Afghan Special Forces with helicopters and jets, called the operation a success.
“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Ahmad. “The Taliban are still in control. Sure, they left some soldiers behind but the Taliban continue to hold the villages. Their police continue to beat people.”
Nato said it did manage to deal a significant blow to the insurgents’ last month when an American drone killed Nuristan’s deputy shadow governor, one of his lieutenants and eight others in Waygal district. A few days later, in neighbouring Kunar province, another drone strike killed a man Nato claimed to be the second in command of Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan franchise.
The drone strikes are an early sign of how America plans to fight in Afghanistan after the bulk of its regular forces withdraw in 2014. With far fewer conventional ground forces, America will rely increasingly on Special Forces, drones and local informers who tip off intelligence services about the location of high value targets, like those killed by the drone strikes last month. The strategy carries serious risk, not least the potential for targeting innocent civilians as Nato’s intelligence gathering capabilities are weakened in line with the withdrawal of ground troops.
Analysts say America’s approach to parts of Afghanistan that remain deeply insecure will likely be similar to its covert war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency.
One western analyst, who has monitored the region for years, said: “The other option is a better political strategy that seeks to buttress tribal or even religious leadership against the Talibs. But we are just no good at doing things like that.”
His words certainly resonate in Nuristan. Members of parliament have for years asked President Karzai and his western backers to remove Nuristan’s governor, Jamaluddin Badr.
Last year, Karzai finally sacked Badr, who, according to current and former UN officials, retains familial links to some of the province’s most militant, Pakistani-backed insurgent networks.
Afghan authorities are currently investigating allegations that Badr, his police chief and 10 other officials pilfered almost half a million dollars from the province’s budget.
Most of the stolen money was supposed to pay the salaries of the province’s policemen, many of whom haven’t received their wages for nine months, local and police officials say.
Badr, who was questioned by the attorney-general’s office last month, made $163,000 from the scheme, according to the current governor.
Official documents at the attorney-general’s office, which were obtained by The Sunday Times last year, also accuse the governor and his intelligence chief of pocketing money from construction companies, of stealing money meant for the families of martyrs and of selling wheat on the black market that was given to the province by the World Food Programme.
Badr denies all the allegations against him.
But the removal of Badr alone won’t solve Nuristan’s ills, warn local officials, analysts and UN staff. They fear that unless the government and international community moves swiftly to develop governance and infrastructure in the province, then the Taliban’s strength will grow, encouraging other militants to seek refuge in the region.
Nato announced last month that it will hand control of Nuristan over to Afghan security forces. Many locals wondered whether the announcement was a joke: there have been no western forces stationed in Nuristan for years.
“Who are they handing it over to?” asked one UN official. “After 10 years, there are few roads, no state institutions in most districts, the police are almost non-existent and the Taliban are in the ascendancy. If the government can’t support the province we’ll see the collapse of Nuristan very soon.”