What happened when US forces left Afghan hotspot?

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What happens when US forces pull out of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan? The BBC's Bilal Sarwary, the first journalist to visit one of the areas the US left in Kunar province, uncovers a disturbing situation.

Kunar has always been a crucible of conflict. Tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Afghanistan, it borders Pakistan's tribal badlands. It is one of the first ports of call for war-minded militants crossing the mountain passes.

But after the US-led invasion, troops began to assert their hold over the province. It is now littered with US and Nato bases and despite bloody battles there, the US invested heavily. Roads were asphalted, buildings renovated and a sense of security slowly developed. Villagers went about their business while infrastructure was put in place.

The US pulled out of parts of Kunar last year, beginning the withdrawal process. What has happened in the province since then makes for grim reading.

The new roads are now pock-marked with craters left by militants who plant bombs targeting Western and Afghan forces.

The province is becoming more dangerous - UK aid worker Linda Norgrove was kidnapped on one of the main roads in Kunar last year and in the past few months an Afghan translator was also abducted from exactly the same area.

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It's Taliban across the river - they are lying in wait”

End Quote Barkanday village elder

The stretch between Chaw Kay and Nur Gal has become a favourite haunt of militants seeking targets.

The Taliban now roam at will in some rural districts, ruling villages by night while the government exerts nominal power by day. Taliban radio stations broadcast daily and hypnotic chants exhorting jihad (holy war) dominate Kunar's airwaves.

Intelligence officials say the Taliban operate radio stations from transmitters loaded on the backs of donkeys. "The donkeys are always mobile and they are guarded by armed insurgents," one spy told me.

Pech River Valley

Pech River Valley offers little for thousands of residents spread across this remote region. Sandwiched between forested valleys and mountains, a shallow river runs in the middle.

It is hostile and difficult terrain and has been favoured by militants for years. In the 1980s hundreds of Arab fighters poured in and married locals. Analysts believe al-Qaeda fighters are still in the area.

Why did the US base themselves there? Because whoever wins people in areas like this will win most of Kunar. That is a challenge the Taliban are now taking up.

It is a potent weapon for insurgents, they argue. A number of Kunar youth are being recruited as suicide bombers and there is evidence of militant training camps in areas where the US used to patrol.

Rising against militants

When I visited the picturesque Pech valley in the west of the province, a cloud of gloom hung over it.

In Barkanday village, I found a group of tribal elders brooding over their predicament: where once US forces were a deterrent to the Taliban, the Afghan government is notable only for its absence.

"It is Taliban across the river," one elder said. "They are lying in wait. At the first opportunity, they will descend on the village to take their revenge," he said, refusing to give his name for fear of retribution.

Pech River Valley Villagers say the Taliban are making a comeback now US forces have left

Barkanday dared to rise against the Taliban when they blew up a bridge over the river, restricting the villagers' movement and obstructing water meant for their fields. The revolt did not go down well with the Taliban leadership, the elder said.

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I met the Taliban-appointed governor - he promised me justice”

End Quote Bibi Gul

One local pointed to a dozen men in the distance carrying grenade launchers and machine guns, most dressed in Afghan army and police uniforms. They were Taliban, I was told.

Inside the village, 30-year-old Suleman told me insurgents enter the village at night. "They catch hold of anyone who dares to step out," he said.

Several people whose family members work for the security forces fled after US forces left the village. "Those still here live in fear day and night," another elder said.

Taliban letter to Bibi Gul The Taliban wrote a letter for Bibi Gul on their own headed notepaper

Suleman spoke of one recent morning when villagers woke to find a bullet-riddled body. There was a typed note saying anyone found working for the "infidels" would meet the same fate.

"When US forces left, they told us that our security was now the responsibility of the Afghan government," Mohammad Akbar said. "But the Afghan government exists only in the district headquarters at Mano Gai."

I did not come across a single soldier or official on my way there or during my four-hour stay. Villagers say development has also suffered.

"US forces built bridges, roads, schools and clinics in the area," said Abu Zubair. "Now there is no such activity."

Taliban judiciary

The Taliban even run a shadow judiciary in parts of Kunar. Like increasing numbers of Afghans in rural areas looking for speedy justice, Bibi Gul turned to a Taliban court when her son was murdered after a spat with a neighbour.

Suicide bomber profiled

Omar suicide bomber

Omar is 16 and came from the Pech River Valley. He carried out a suicide car attack against US forces in the summer. One police officer was injured.

Soon afterwards, the Taliban's mobile radio station FM Voice of Sharia was praising him, calling him a "hero" and an example to other Afghans. But how did the Taliban manage to recruit him?

Relatives say Omar was recruited at a refugee camp in Pakistan. He kept all details of his life as a Taliban fighter secret from his loved ones until the last minute. He recorded a video saying he needed to carry out a suicide attack against "foreign invaders".

When government officials failed to act she took her grievance to the Taliban.

"I crossed the river and travelled several hours... I met the Taliban-appointed governor. He promised me justice," she said, showing me a letter from him.

It said: "Tell us if there is a tribal solution to the woman's complaint. If not, we will resolve the dispute our way."

Several villagers told me that Taliban judges hold court every Friday in nearby areas, deciding cases ranging from robbery to murder.

"They don't make us wait for months… justice is handed out instantly," one woman said.

The governor of Kunar, Fazlullah Wahidi, rejects the argument that there is no government in places such as Barkanday. But he admits that there are not enough Afghan forces to instill confidence, admitting "that is our weakness".

Afghanistan's intelligence spokesman, Luftullah Mashal, insists that training camps are based over the border in Pakistan.

But as Western forces withdraw, more areas like those in Kunar will be handed over to Afghan forces. Many Afghans ask if local forces will be able to hold on to these areas. If Kunar is an example, there will be many doubts.

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