A storm is brewing over Afghanistan's Southeast. In the distance a low growl of thunder rumbles through Paktia province's deforested peaks, but for now its capital Gardez is eerily quiet except for the swirls of dust whipped up by wind, spiraling through the town's pot-holed streets. The town's miserable skyline, a row of dilapidated half-constructed buildings, lies abandoned in a windswept plain against the slate sky.
Mohammad Naeem, a man in his late thirties wearing a beige shalwar kameez and white skullcap pauses to sip his tea and looks up out of the window. Outside fledgling sparrows cling to swinging wires and the dry scaffolding of swaying trees.
Last month, five armed men turned up at his house in the middle of the night demanding shelter. "For God's sake please don't bother us, we don't need any trouble," his younger brother told them at the door. One of the men hit him with his rifle butt and the gang barged their way in, settling on cushions and demanding tea.
Soon came the sound of American gunships circling overhead, and through a loudspeaker the order to surrender and a warning that the house was surrounded. Then the shooting started.
"My kids were terrified, they began screaming and ran to the room where my parents were, huddling in a corner together," Mohammad said. "Then the Americans dropped some kind of bomb and the roof collapsed. As my brother ran out to speak to the Americans, he was shot in the back. He was losing blood rapidly and screamed at them ‘my whole family is injured and some are dead! Please let me rescue my other relatives, please stop shooting!' He was shot in the head, killed instantly. We don't know from where, it was dark."
"My father died of his injuries," he continues. "His arm was blown off and his legs were broken because the ceiling fell on him. When I saw his body, he had a lot of injuries to his head. My niece was also killed. Both my mother's arms were shot and she had bad burns and shrapnel in her head, but thanks be to God she is still alive. My wife was also injured - she has shrapnel in her chest and head injuries, her whole face is burned - but the American doctors have helped her and she has survived."
As thousands of troops begin to pull out, NATO will likely increasingly rely on raids such as these to dent the insurgent groups pushing into Paktia.
Naeem's birthplace is one of the largest districts in the entire Southeast and accounts for almost half of Paktia's population. Zurmat is an important transit route for insurgents. Here, the tribal structure has eroded over the years and social networks have been weakened, reducing tribes' ability to protect themselves. A government and military presence has always been desperately needed, yet positions remain empty and police are reluctant to stray beyond the district center. Over the years this vacuum has been filled by the Taliban, who have established their own shadow government.
As NATO forces have stepped up operations to keep militants at bay, those that have been killed have been easily replaced. "No commander's position is left vacant for even a moment" I was told by a member of one of the few international organizations left working in the region. "The Taliban just keep coming."
As a result of increased Taliban presence, many residents are leaving a place that a few years ago was alive with the noise of jackhammers chattering through market stalls. Paktiawal, folk from Paktia, flocked back across the border from refugee camps, pouring money earned in the Gulf back into their homeland. Almost every mud-brick household in this region has a family member working abroad. Anyone who has been to Dubai will have seen busloads of migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent clad in blue jumpsuits being ferried between the city's shimmering building sites to spend their days toiling under an unforgiving Arabian sun.
Their hard work, plus the occasional injection of foreign funding (when not siphoned off by local strongmen or wily contractors), does pay off. Next to the province's expanding arterial road linking these tribal heartlands to Kabul, Paktia's industrious minority Shi'a community are erecting a new mosque. Schools are being refurbished and equipped, and a university has been inaugurated. There is a new (privately-funded) women's clinic on the outskirts of Gardez.
But some months ago, the Taliban ordered phone networks to close at 7:00 PM each night in Paktia, and the National Directorate of Security's warnings of suicide bombers prowling through bazaars are becoming more frequent. Knocks on doors in the middle of the night by gangs of masked men seeking refuge are a regular occurrence in districts where tribes were once able to keep their communities safe.
Tragically for war-weary locals, a stronger Taliban presence here means more military operations. Despite growing criticism and Afghan president Hamid Karzai's public condemnations of the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) use of force at the expense of civilian lives, irreversible mistakes are still being made even though a recently published United Nations report states that, overall, civilian deaths caused by pro-government forces are in fact nine percent lower than in the same period last year, although the U.N. does say that it may be under-reporting the full scale of casualties due to limited access to data.
The IOM's Afghan Civilian Assistance Programme (ACAP), which assists civilians who have suffered during incidents in which the international military were present or intended to be present, says this is also true of the Southeast. In 2010 in Paktia, ACAP recorded 15 incidents of civilian casualties, involving 55 families. In 2011 to date ACAP has only recorded seven incidents involving 14 families, though the program only keeps figures on casualties that match its eligibility criteria, and cautions drawing too many conclusions from aggregate statistics.
In the Southeast, the likelihood is that as ISAF troops draw down in the coming months and years, these deeply unpopular raids and aerial attacks will increase, carried out by smaller Special Forces-trained armed militias that have been groomed for such covert operations over the past few years, particularly along the Southeast's porous border with Waziristan, which partly explains this increase in Taliban presence in Paktia.
The Taliban seems to have become a catch-all term for a myriad of both criminal and insurgent networks, some of which originated here. A district nestled amidst Paktia's mountains is home to the region's most important insurgent leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose more militant and radical son Sirajuddin Haqqani today commands logistics and military operations with ample support from foreign networks.
Other insurgent groups here include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-I Islami (HIG), a group seemingly keener to engage politically with the Afghan government. They registered their political party in Paktia in late 2008, though the group's militant wing has come under pressure lately from both the Haqqanis and the Taliban, who issued a fatwa against HIG last September. This in turn has prompted HIG fighters to become more involved than they might have otherwise been in anti-government and anti-U.S. attacks, including most recently a suicide attack at the gates of the controversial Afghan Local Police (ALP) training centre in Zazi Aryoub in the north of the province.
Then there is the Mansur network, which has closer ties to the traditional Quetta-based Taliban leadership, though this group has come under severe pressure recently in Zurmat due to military operations. Added to this motley crew is a handful of radicalized foreign fighters fighting with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Haqqanis, amongst others.
This intensified U.S.-led cross-border campaign, including drone attacks in Waziristan over the past 18 months, has forced Haqqani's men to push north. They have sought refuge in a sliver of Pakistani territory known as the Kurram Agency, which shares a border with Paktia. Until recently the Shi'a majority inhabiting the area known locally as ‘Little Iran' acted as a natural buffer along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border against their Sunni foes. However in recent months, Siraj has brokered enough of a deal to secure his men a passageway through Kurram and Paktia on to Kabul, where the group is believed to be responsible for the majority of suicide bombings.
The likelihood is that here in this under-reported region, people's stories will continue to be buried and forgotten, and Mohammad Naeem will simply be another statistic in the war's rising toll of collateral damage.
His nightmare didn't end with the collapse of his house or the loss of his family members. Shortly after the attack on his home, another group of men wearing what appeared to be Afghan Army uniforms returned to one of Naeem's relative's homes and kidnapped his uncle and cousin. "They left a letter saying it was because I had taken my relatives to an American hospital to be treated. They accused me of being a spy. They accuse everyone of being spies. I've decided to leave this place, I am taking my family to Kabul."
The wind picks up and fat drops of summer rain start to fall; the storm is about to break, finally. From the back seat of a banged up corolla I watch shrouded figures edging carefully along walls laced with razor wire, bulky frames cradling swaddled infants concealed from the world under forget-me-not blue polyester cloaks. Their faceless mothers are easy to forget; they were almost never there. They move with haste, anonymously and apologetically, framed by the bruised heavens.
Emilie Jelinek has been in Afghanistan since 2004 and is currently working on a briefing paper for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. She writes the Captain Cat's Diaries blog.