The Current Political Situation in Nuristân


Richard F. Strand

© 2001-2007

Al-Qa'ida Looks toward Neglected Nuristân  
(17 July 2007, correcting the original posting of 14 July 2007)

Rumors in eastern Nuristân indicate that al-Qa'ida is attempting to make a major strategic thrust toward Afghanistan's capital by overrunning the province of Nuristân. The number of anti-government insurgents in Nuristân's eastern LanDay Sin Valley is now estimated to be as high as 2,000, but recalling the gross over-estimations that the communists made of the first Nuristâni insurgents in 1979, the real number is probably in the low hundreds. In either case, the number is up sharply from an estimated 40-60 in late 2002. Five years ago, most of the insurgents were indigenous Hezb-e Islâmi partisans; but today there is an increasing influx of al-Qa'ida-supported outsiders, including Pakistanis, Arabs, and other al-Qa'ida partisans who infiltrate freely over Afghanistan's border from Chitral District in Pakistan. The insurgents find sanctuary and support in the mosques of most villages throughout the Kâmdesh District of Nuristân Province. Because American forces are currently stationed at several operating bases in the LanDay Sin Valley, al-Qa'ida is calling on jihadists to come to Nuristân to confront the Americans there. Through sympathetic mullâhs in the local mosques, al-Qa'ida propagandists are finding new jihadist converts among gullible Nuristânis, equating the American military presence with that of the former Soviet army through the slogan, "The infidels have arrived again!" Using their proxy mullâhs, al-Qa'ida's alleged goal is to convert a belligerent minority of Nuristânis to the jihadist cause, allowing al-Qa'ida to effectively control Nuristân Province and infiltrate their forces closer to Kâbul.

Al-Qa'ida leaders are reportedly converging on the area to negotiate the formation of a united command structure in Nuristân with local Hezb-e Islâmi and Tâlibân partisans. Previously, Hezbi and al-Qa'ida operatives worked mostly separately in the region, and the local Hezbis viewed the more extreme precepts of their al-Qa'ida counterparts with some abhorrance. It remains to be seen whether al-Qa'ida's attempt at consolidation will succeed, but it seems clear that they are effective at swelling the number of outsider insurgents in Nuristân.

From the beginning of their attempt in spring of 2006 to establish a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base in eastern Nuristân, American forces encountered strong resistance from a long-neglected Hezb-e Islâmi cell that had grown to dominate the southern mountains of Nuristân's eastern LanDay Sin Valley. The cell originally comprised remnant local adherents of Gulbuddin Hekmatyâr's Hezb-e Islâmi party, linked to supply-line backers from Pakistan. In late 2002 there were some two to three score men in the cell, according to local estimates, hiding out in a base in the alpine forest between the Kom villages of Badzgal, Pitigal, and UshtroT (Gawardesh). They received semi-clandestine logistic support from pro-Hezbi local mullâhs and a growing number of young Nuristâni tâlebs (religious students) trained in Pakistani madrassas. The Hezbis were waiting to see what kind of reprisals they would face from the American forces that were beginning to show up in the area, on patrol from their new base near Asadâbâd in the Kunar Valley.

The Americans had interrogated several known insurgent leaders during their first forays into the LanDay Sin Valley, but with the exception of frightening away Mullâh Sâdiq from his Hezbi-sponsored dictatorship of Kâmdesh, they had let most of the cell's local operatives go with warnings (along with the number-two leader of the notorious, Pakistani-based Lashkar-e Tâyba). Despite repeated admonishments from local Nuristâni leaders, successive base commanders in Asadâbâd ignored the strategic threat posed by the Hezbi cell in the southern LanDay Sin Valley. Interpreting the lack of any American punitive action as American weakness, the cell solidified its base with greater material and logistic support from Pakistan and with more Nuristâni youth who had been raised in Pakistani madrassas.

In 2003 the Hezbi cell went on the offensive, targeting pro-Government leaders and workers with landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and killing and maiming scores of innocents in the process. Their underground operations against local functionaries were initially masked by the lingering hostilities of the war between the Kom and KSto tribes; but later it was clear that the Hezbi cell and its partisans were behind most of the violence. In the ensuing years the Hezbis murdered the Security Chief of Kâmdesh District, they kidnapped doctors and engineers who were there on assistance missions, they destroyed trucks plying the road along the LanDay Sin River, murdering or beating their drivers, they staged debilitating attacks on Afghan Aid and other NGO assistance missions, eventually driving them out, and they destroyed a new hydro-power unit that had supplied Kâmdesh with electricity for the first time ever. The American commanders continued to ignore the problem.

By the time the American commanders moved to establish a PRT base in eastern Nuristân, the problem they had ignored hit them head-on. Their strategically vulnerable site for the PRT at the confluence of the LanDay Sin and Nichingal Valleys drew high-ground Hezbi fire from the outset, and their supply route up the LanDay Sin road was mostly cut off. Realizing that they had to concentrate on counter-insurgency rather than reconstruction, they established operating bases at several sites in the LanDay Sin basin. After some months they abandoned their attempt to establish a PRT in eastern Nuristân and downgraded their PRT site to a forward operating base. The insurgents saw this a victory for themselves.

American counter-insurgency operations have had slight successes, but a 2006 Apache-helicopter attack on fleeing insurgents who had holed up in a house in Kâmdesh's Upper Community caused several civilian injuries in the neighborhood and turned many villagers against the Americans.

Traffic on the LanDay Sin road continues to be interdicted by the insurgents at numerous makeshift checkpoints between Bari KoT and Kâmdesh. The insurgents use IEDs and RPGs to destroy vehicles, and they continue to beat and murder transport drivers in an attempt to intimidate truckers from plying the American forces' supply route.

The growing insurgency is fueled from Pakistan's Chitral District, across the border from Nuristân. The fact that so many well-supplied al-Qa'ida operatives can pass the many Pakistani-governmental checkpoints along the route from Peshawar to Chitral speaks to the veracity of official Pakistani support for the Americans. Once in Chitral, the insurgents have traditionally entered Nuristân via the Patkyun Pass to UshtroT or via other passes at the end of the Kalash valleys. Now, I am told, they are seen openly in the bazaar of Dukalâm, on the Afghanistan side of the only legal and motorable border-crossing point from Pakistan's Chitral District, where a small bribe turns an Afghan policeman's head.

How did the situation in eastern Nuristân deteriorate so quickly? From the outset in 2002, the insurgents have repeatedly tested the Americans' resolve, and after most tests there were no reprisals for the insurgents' offenses. Viewing the Americans as cowards, the insurgents committed ever-bolder violence against the local populace and international assistance agencies. The process continues, and whole villages are now intimidated by the insurgents. The military response to the growing insurgency is still lacking, which is why al-Qa'ida sees Nuristân as easy prey. Without a smarter counter-insurgency strategy, which American commanders will be held responsible for the fall of Nuristân?

In Memoriam: Qâzi Ghulâmullâh   (14 July 2007)

Qâzi Ghulâmullâh, the leading intellectual of the Kom nation, passed away on 22 January 2007, at age 80. Perhaps the smartest man in Nuristân, Qâzi Sâhib (as he is called) rose from impovershed orphanhood to become a reputable jurist, serving as a mufti and then qâzi (judge) in Afghanistan's provincial court system. A natural linguist, Qâzi Sâhib wrote the first comprehensive grammar of a Nuristâni language (Kâmviri) in 1966, under a grant from Kâbul University commissioned by the renown linguist Georg Morgenstierne. In later years he served in various posts under Afghanistan's communist government.

Qâzi Ghulâmullâh (2003)

Qâzi Sâhib was my mentor and close friend during my research in Nuristân, and I owe much of my understanding of Kâmviri to his linguistic insights. His passing leaves an unfillable vacuum in the intellectual leadership of Nuristân and in the lives of his family and friends. I will greatly miss him.

In Memoriam: Vakil Muhammad Kabir   (12 November 2004)

Vakil Muhammad Kabir, the greatest modern-day orator and politician of the Kom nation, passed away in October, 2004, at age 76. A self-described populist, he had been campaigning tirelessly throughout eastern Nuristân on behalf of President Hamid Karzai's candidacy in the impending presidential election in Afghanistan. He had just finished an impassioned speech in front of a large gathering in Kâmdesh, calling for regional ethnic unity, when he suffered a heart attack. He died shortly thereafter.

Vakil Muhammad Kabir (2003)

Vakil Kabir's indefatigable personality, sense of humor, political sagacity, and mastery of rhetoric made him legendary throughout the region. His passing is an irreplaceable loss for his people. He was among my closest of friends in Nuristân, and I share the sorrow of his family at their loss. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

An Update from Nuristân, and a Retraction   (5 April 2003)

Having spent the last few months in eastern Afghânistân, I have been able to see firsthand the situation in Nuristân. I must begin by saying that my Nuristâni source in America mislead me regarding the nature of Muhammad Zarin and his role in local affairs. In fact, I find that Zarin is a staunch ally of America and a good friend of many of my closest confidants in Nuristân. He fought bravely as a mujâhed during the Soviet-Afghân War, and he is a strong opponent of Gulbudin Hekmatyâr's Hesb-e Islâmi militants, who are bent on undermining peace and stability in Afghânistân. He was considered an enemy by a certain faction of the Kom people, from whom I was receiving reports from the field, but their dispute was personal in nature and did not involve the whole Kom nation. I must apologize for any ill will that my previous commentary might have caused, and I can only cite the Kom proverb, "Spit on the liar and beat the believer," as applicable to myself.

Having said that, I must report that the situation in eastern Nuristân is not good. In the lower LanDay Sin Valley, much of the Kom region is still in the hands of Hesb-e Islâmi thugs, who have terrorized the populace and stolen the proceeds from the once lucrative timber trade. Their leader, Mullâh Sâdiq, has been Gulbudin Hekmatyâr's main ally in the region since early in the Soviet-Afghân War, and at this very moment he is organizing and carrying out terrorist resistance against the Afghân government and its American military guarantors in the area. Scarcely a week ago a landmine planted by Hesbi plotters killed a Kom soldier and injured his American counterparts when their vehicle ran over it outside the town of Barikot, near to the Pakistan border.

Farther up the LanDay Sin Valley, portions of the Kâta nation are still controlled by Mullâh Afzâl, currently living in Peshawar, Pâkistân, who distinguished himself by allowing Pâkistân's military intelligence service to set up terrorist training camps in Kâta Valley during the reign of the Tâlebân. The camps were used by Lashkar-e Tâyba, the notorious group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocents in Kashmir and elsewhere.

The presence of American troops supporting the underpaid Afghan forces in BarikoT has so far served as a deterrent to more Hesbi brutality in the region, but it has also driven the Hesbi partisans to more desparate measures. They have infiltrated every level of the national government, including the Ministry of Defense, from where they have attempted to remove the pro-American commander of the BarikoT division. Most Nuristânis whom I respect have lamented that the American forces in the area have not dealt harshly enough with their Hesbi enemies, whose pervertedly politicized interpretation of Islâm threatens ordinary peace-loving inhabitants of Afghânistân and beyond.

The Bad Guys

A deputation of leading elders of the Kom Nation has asked me to publicize a list of the major proponents of terrorism, extortion, theft, and anti-government activity in eastern Nuristan. Most of these are the agents of Gulbudin Hekmatyâr's Hesb-e Islâmi party, now actively allied with Al-Qâida and other terrorist groups. The Kom elders stress that peace and security cannot return to Nuristân until the following men are removed from the scene:

Priority(Title) & NameFather's NameClanSub-ClanResidenceComments
1(Mullâh) SâdiqMahmat Said ("bâgul jela")Tsük-dâraVok-dâraKâmdesh: UpperGulbudin Hekmatyâr's main man in the region; has eluded capture; hides out in Kâmu at Ghulâm Ullâh's house
2(Komandân) JalilAbdul KarimUto-dâraPâlük-Dümü-dâraKâmdesh: Paprustân 
3(Hâji) ManonGaborUto-dâraPâlük-Dümü-dâraKâmdesh: PaprustânIn charge of weapons, which are hidden in the Charatgal Valley; allegedly sold a Stinger missle to Hâji Amân Khân of Nawagai, in Bajawur, Pakistan
4GhafurAbdullâhUto-dâraSua˜ro-Âston-dâraKâmdesh: Paprustân 
5Sher ÂghâAkbar KhânUto-dâraPâlük-Dümü-dâraKâmdesh: PaprustânMaintains a residence upriver from Barikot; is currently in Kâbul trying to undermine the effectiveness of the Ministry of Defense's support for the pro-American commander of the Afghânistan Government's garrison at Barikot
6Shamsur RahmânJumma Khân ("kâNDra jimoan")Tsük-dâra?Kâmdesh: Upper 
7Nur AhmadJumma KhânTsük-dâraMuri-dâraKâmdesh: UpperCurrently in Kâbul trying to undermine the effectiveness of the Ministry of Defense's support for the pro-American commander of the Afghânistan Government's garrison at Barikot
8ZikriaAkhtar Muhammad??MandagalMain Wahâbi agent in the region
9Mir Afzâl???BadmukMain Lashkar-e Tâyba agent in the region