Nuristan Violence Part of a Years-Long Campaign?

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by Joshua Foust on 10/5/2009 · 12 comments

In 2007, according to ethnolinguist Richard Strand, al Qaeda began a “major strategic thrust toward Afghanistan’s capital” by increasing its presence in Nuristan. Prior to 2007, Nuristan was mostly the domain of Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin, and the two groups rarely worked together (HiG militants thought al Qaeda too extreme). Strand estimated the number of militants in the low hundreds, with supply backers in Pakistan, most likely Chitral.

Since then, violence in Nuristan has spiked. The increase probably has as much to do with an increased American presence as it does insurgent activity, after two PRTs were established in 2006. In mid-2007, several hundred militants moved into the Bargimatal region north of Kamdesh, along the border with Pakistan. It received scant attention in English media, though it was reported Le Monde and several local outlets like Pahjwok.

Indeed, the large scale attacks in Nuristan and, to a lesser extent, in Kunar, should not be surprising. These kinds of assaults are actually fairly common in what Strand calls the “Nuristan-Kunar Corridor”—we only happen to hear about them when Americans get killed by the half dozen. When entire districts get seized by the Taliban, it’s difficult to find a newswire that mentions it (when they retake the area, a few stories leak out).


Operations at Outpost Bella in the Waygal Valley, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Chosen Company, 2-503rd PIR, 173rd ABCT. November, 2007

Nuristan also happens to be one of the only areas of Afghanistan with a noticeable presence of the infamous Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba—the same group responsible for the Mumbai attack late last year.

Whether or not the rise in violence is deliberate is unclear. The Jamestown Foundation argued in 2006 that there is little evidence to support the claim—so much criminal and local violence is blamed on insurgents, they said, so it’s probably not planned (that same report also noted that the violence in Kamdesh and Bargimatal was almost exclusively locally-focused, and not part of the broader anti-Kabul or anti-West jihad).

However, it is difficult to ignore the very clear pattern the violence has taken since 2007 or so. During 2006 and before, most anti-western violence was scattered and small scale—a few British security consultants killed here, an NGO office ransacked there. After the establishment of PRTs in 2006, and subsequent influx of U.S. troops, the violence has become not only more organized—Want and Kamdesh have not been the only complex attacks, just the most successful—it has become deadlier. When all is said and done, it is really hard to kill eight or nine U.S. troops in combat, especially when it’s actual combat and not just planting bombs. There is definitely some sort of organizing factor behind everything.

But there is also the distinct possibility the U.S. has merely served as a lightning rod, a convenient way for militants to channel local disputes toward their own objective. In 2002 or so, HiG barely had a few dozen fighters in the entire province—now, apparently, hundreds of fighters can swarm out from a local village to attack a small base. It is unlikely HiG would have been able to motivate or hire so many fighters without a U.S. presence, which calls into question what, exactly, we are trying to accomplish there.

In either case, the details of how the insurgency is shaping up in Nuristan deserves much more research and probably access to non-public records. But I think it’s important to raise this question here, float the idea out there: should we have seen this kind of thing coming many years ago?

Bonus material: this impassioned call for missionaries to bring the Christian “Gospel of Peace” to Nuristan. Prayer needs include access, people willing to go, doctors, and visions. More remarkable than their pretty sober understanding of the social fracture in the province (Christian missionaries usually compile the most accurate ethnographies on obscure ethnicities available to the public, since they want to genuinely know and understand who they’re converting), is the number of gospel messages they have available in Nuristani languages. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t half-tempting to try to join up.

Photo: FOB Kalagush, courtesy Flickr user Hayat Nooristani.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 12 comments }

Ryan October 6, 2009 at 4:32 am

…b/c you can’t imagine something that would make the Muslim residents of Nuristan angrier than converting the vulnerable and challenging their Islam? Great COIN

Joshua Foust October 6, 2009 at 9:10 am

Ryan, a private missionary organization has zero obligation to the COIN effort.

Ryan October 6, 2009 at 9:27 am

Of course not (although I think there is a strong case for banning missionary organizations from this warzone), but since you are a big advocate of improving our strategy in Afghanistan, I found it curious that you were half-tempted to join an effort that essential serves as a recruiting tool for the Taliban in the end(those darn Crusaders stealing Muslims into other religions!)

Joshua Foust October 6, 2009 at 9:50 am

Well, it was more the practical development projects, sanitation, and medical work that intrigued me. Also the chance just to GO, and see the place.

dennis October 6, 2009 at 2:26 pm

in some ways i must agree with you on this. but did not some villages say, don’t come here. we don’t need you.? but yes i would like to go to.

Ryan October 6, 2009 at 9:58 am

Yeah, I’m with you there…

David M October 6, 2009 at 10:06 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/06/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

M SHANNON October 6, 2009 at 10:11 am

Please ask the Christian do-gooders to stay home. All they’ll do is stir up trouble and harm INGO morale when they get killed or kidnapped.

michael craycraft October 6, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Historically the Nuristanis, a light skinned-blue eyed people, have always been Christians. There was a forced conversion to Islam, perhaps in the early 20th century, but I don’t know how effective it was or presently is.

Joshua Foust October 6, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Actually, no. The various Nuristani ethnicities practiced a unique form of polytheism; in 1896 Emir Abdur Rahman forcibly converted them to Islam. They have never been Christians, with the obvious exception of a few individuals here and there.

Toryalay Shirzay October 7, 2009 at 12:38 pm

New and effective approaches are needed here.Using terms like conversion and the like are not effective with Afghans,may even be counterproductive.Here are some suggestions that will work: missionaries with skills in health,agriculture,simple income generating crafts will bw most effective.Here is the effective approach:Don’t talk about religion at all first especially converting to christianity.Instead talk about how the Afghans need new ideas so they can shake off poverty,disease,sick mothers,sick children,abuse of children ,etc;this will ring a bell with Afghans .Also talk about how to get rid of violence and killings by saying to them genuine respect must first be cultivated by each individual.Afghans like to hear why YOU Westerners are so successful and less miserable compared to Afghans such as respect for law,for telling the truth,respect for freedom of men and women equally,they be allowed to mingle freely as god intended and when Afghans don’t respect this,it leads to abuse of children,molestation of young boys and the ensuing violence which goes on from generation to generation and takes on many forms.Then later on after Afghans see some help in growing more crops and help with their sick mothers and children,they will be amenable to sayings such as how Christ cultivated peace,love, and brotherhood/sisterhood in all communities and how these communities then prospered instead of Muhammad and his zealeats forced people into their arab religion and brooght misery into communities ever since. There are alot more details i left out as this is not the right place.But if any of you out there who truly like to see the US/NATO succeed in Afghanistan,i have a lot ofexperience and experties which will make a diffrence and you should try to contact me here as i don’t know who to contact .Remember success in Afghanistan is very possible but only if you know the nuances,,the intricate details of Afghan society which is what i offer.

Ex 18A October 7, 2009 at 1:45 pm

God save us from Christian missionaries. They’re bad enough here in the US. They’ve done unimaginable damage abroad.

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