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.