Afghan forces up for the fight in Kunar valley
If the Afghan National Army (ANA) is to prevent the Taliban from taking control of the country after Nato withdraws in 2014, its success in capturing and securing the strategically important and mountainous district of Chapa Dara in the eastern province of Kunar may provide a template, the BBC's Bilal Sarwary reports.
There is no decent road to Chapa Dara - only a bumpy dirt track takes you to this mountainous district. The area is known for its dense forests and vast maize fields that offer a perfect hideout to Taliban insurgents.
Lack of development and a near total absence of government helped the Taliban take control of the only road access to Chapa Dara two-and-a-half years ago, paralysing an already weak administration.
"The Taliban did not allow food, fuel, even medicine to pass through this road," General Hayatullah Aqtash, commander of the Afghan National Army in Kunar, tells me.
"Prices of essential items sky rocketed, the government was paralysed and locals were terrorised."
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.
In recent months US drones - and the aerial intelligence they provided - are estimated to have killed more than 100 Taliban fighters, breaking the backbone of the Taliban and enabling the ANA to assume control of Chapa Dara, Gen Aqtash said.
Last year a US drone attack in the Shegal district of Kunar killed Mullah Dadullah, a high-ranking Pakistani Taliban commander.
Top Taliban commander Maulawi Nur Mohammad and his deputy Atiqullah were also killed in Kunar during 2012.
One of the main aims of the recent military operation was to reopen the Kunar-Nuristan road, which was eventually achieved earlier this year.Music 'banned'
Pech Valley profile
- Mountainous and forested, dotted with narrow valleys that provide excellent cover for insurgents
- Used as base by mujahideen against Soviets in 1980s
- More recently, US forces also suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Taliban and Arab and foreign militants
- Arab influence strong - intermarrying with locals has gone on since war with Soviets
- Few schools or hospitals and no good roads. Most young people who study have to leave
- Kunar province has one of the biggest followings in Afghanistan of the hard line Wahabi sect of Islam.
As the army convoy in which I travelled drove on the dirt track alongside the Pech river, we could see white flags - similar to the ones the Taliban flew during their five-year rule in Afghanistan - fluttering on the other side.
The flags symbolise that the Taliban are in control.
But they have been ejected from Chapa Dara by the ANA.
"We have secured the road, because you have to start from the road," Gen Aqtash said.
"We have come under attack and we suffered casualties in road side bomb blasts. But we want the Taliban to know that we are not going anywhere."
After two hours driving, the convoy reached Chapa Dara.
Most local people seem to welcome the removal of the Taliban, some even providing ANA troops with food, milk and tea.
"Until recently, the Taliban controlled our lives," says Mohammad Bashir, a shopkeeper in the district market.
"Men were beaten up for not having a beard. Music was banned. People were shot dead on the slightest suspicion of spying for the government."
Locals said continuous clashes between the security forces and insurgents over the past two-and-a-half years forced closure of the market and the district's only school.
"Life here came to a standstill," one village elder said. "We were struck between the government forces and the insurgents."
Ihsanullah Gojar, the police chief of Chapa Dara, said his men suffered most during the siege.
"Dozens of policemen have been injured fighting the Taliban over the past two years," he said.
"Many of them had injuries that were treatable but they died of their wounds because of the shortage of medical supplies and doctors.
"We were promised helicopter pick-ups for the injured, but they never came. It was painful to see my men die before my eyes and I could do nothing about it," the police chief said.
As he spoke, several villagers gather around the military convoy, greeting the soldiers with flowers.
"People are happy that Taliban has been removed from Chapa Dara," one elder said.
But the district is desperate for development. There is no judge or prosecutor in Chapa Dara, no clinic, no public health officials or teachers.
The absence of government services is so grave in fact that it threatens to undermine military advances on the ground.
The government is only in control of the town and district headquarters and surrounding areas. Most valleys and villages are still in the hands of the Taliban or foreign fighters.
"This means that even though the army has taken control of the district and the road leading to it, the government can't provide any services to the people," Gen Aqtash said.
"It is obvious that there is a crisis of governance here. Militarily, we have done the job. But if the civilian side doesn't work, this success will be for the short term.
"When the US forces were here, they used to nickname the Pech Valley as the Valley of Death, now we are calling it the Valley of Peace.
"But one has to fight and work hard for peace, it does not come cheap."