Last week, I posted a story on Uzra, a woman in the Afghan province of Nuristan.  After her village in northern Barg-i-Matal District was attacked by a reported 300 insurgents, a member of her family was killed. Uzra picked up a weapon and, over the course of two hours, began killing members of the insurgent group.

After the enemy overran her position, killing her and the three-year old daughter she was fighting to protect, Uzra was found to have four confirmed kills. Other reports state that Uzra may have been responsible for killing as many as seven enemy. Both the provincial governor and the police chief have publicly acknowledged Uzra’s heroism. Both also cited her as an icon for the people of Nuristan and an inspiration for a movement of defiance against the tyrannical onslaught of Taliban rule in the province.

Nuristan is a remote and isolated province in eastern Afghanistan. Dating back hundreds of years to when the region was known as Kafiristan (“Land of the Infidels”), Nuristanis have a well-earned reputation as fierce warriors with an aversion to outside interference in the affairs of the region. Many Nuristanis trace their lineage back to the time of Alexander, though the Nuristani language is of Indo-Persian derivation. While the mythology of Nuristanis tracing their lineage directly to Alexander and the Greeks persists, it is more likely that the migration of the people that now occupy Nuristan originated in either India or Persia.

In 2011, Time Magazine’s Julius Cavenish detailed the Taliban’s plan for incorporating the takeover of Nuristan in their strategic pursuit of asserting control over all of Afghanistan. Cavenish writes:

…for the first time in almost a decade the Taliban are administering an Afghan district unmolested. In fact, Waygal has been almost completely abandoned by NATO for the past three years. For the insurgents — and their non-Afghan militant allies from Pakistan and Arabic-speaking countries — it is the most visible step in a longer term strategy to turn Nuristan, itself virtually given up by the alliance since 2009, into a militant hub and a staging post for attacks on strategic targets, including the capital, Kabul. (Cavenish, Time Magazine, June 1, 2011)

Recently, this vision of eroded security and assertive control over Nuristan has been most evident in the eastern districts of Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh. Some reports state that up to 70% of the province is under the control of insurgents:

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70 percent of Nuristan province is under the control of Taliban insurgents, who cut off to the provincial capital, an official said Monday, warning of a humanitarian disaster if the government does not act soon.
The lack of security has raised concerns of Nuristan inhabitants who said security forces weakness, poor management of local authorities and intervention of intelligence agencies of the neighboring countries are the reason for insecurities in the province. (ATN News, August 25)

Another report places the peril that Nuristanis are now facing into more stark terms, stating that the entire province is on the verge of collapse:

A bevy of legislators and tribal chieftains from eastern Nuristan have warned that the volatile province could fall to the Taliban, if the scourge of insecurity is not tamed. They alleged that insurgents had massacred 1,100 people, including a woman, and torched houses of those who fought against them after their districts collapsed.

“The Taliban insurgents hold sway in almost eighty percent of the province,” said Nuristan MP, Mawlawi Ahmadullah Mowahed. “Wama district and the provincial capital Paroon is under the government control, while the Taliban have control of the rest of the province, including Kamdesh and Barg-e-Matal districts,” he told a joint press conference. (Afghanistan Times, August 25)

The statements of Afghan parliamentarians convey a vivid and urgent need for a change in strategy in both identifying enemy and taking them off of the battlefield in Nuristan. Failure to address the quickly weakening control of the Kabul government over key areas of this strategically vital province is tantamount to acquiescing to long-term control of the area (and Kunar to the south) to anti-government elements that sustain important logistical and command ties to elements on the other side of the Durand Line in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Afghanistan Times continues:

“Every night, they purge house and kill civilians including the clerics and ordinary citizens who support the government, while the government abstains from supporting civilians,” he asserted, “Nobody can go to school or mosque Taliban and those who have supported the government are being killed on a daily basis.”

He acknowledged that unknown people clad in black have been behind terrorist activities and the growing insecurity. “Many terrorists in guise of refugees crossed the border into Afghanistan and lead terrorist operations in Nuristan,” he said, blaming the government for not supporting the citizens and the security agencies for lack of proper coordination. (Afghanistan Times, August 25)

There are significant parallels to be found between the plight of Nuristani civilians and the Yezidi people in northern Iraq. Recently, Jack Murphy conveyed the genocidal mania surrounding the targeting of the Yezidi people of Kurdish Iraq and on Mount Sinjar. Nuristanis are being subjected to the same inhuman tactics with little or no mention in the media outside of Afghanistan. The harrowing stories of civilian atrocities in Nuristan are highlighted and underlined by the alarming reports of wanton murder and intimidation, specifically in Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh:

A tribal elder from Nuristan, Mawlawi Abdul Bari Haidari, said villages of Bazgar, Gawardesh, Bedegal and the valley of Gawardesh are vacant and residents have fled to Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, and unknown men hailing from Pakistan under the guise of refugees have settled in the villages.
Kamdesh and Barg-e-Matal districts cannot obtain logistical support on the ground as they have been literally besieged by the enemies since five years. And the military centers of the enemies are stationed in five-kilometer of Barg-e-Matal district since last four years and no any clearance operation has been conducted so far in order to rescue the citizens. And the police and Afghan National Army are logistically supported by the air crafts, but the land transportation is closed to the public and the state staff. (Afghanistan Times, August 25)

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Along with the targeting of civilians in Barg-i-Matal and in Kamdesh, insurgent groups have been conducting attacks with greater confidence, reflecting better coordination, command, and control on the provincial capital of Parun. Mass attacks have also been targeting the capital in Du Ab:

The officials of the 201 Selab Military Corps said that after eight days of fighting against the insurgents, the ANSF have regained control of the district.

They said that they found Pakistani documents on the bodies of the dead insurgents, adding that among the dead were two Taliban leaders, Mullah Nematullah and Sultan.

“The flag of the country can, once again, be raised in Do Ab district as the Afghan troops built the way toward reconstruction and defeated the enemies,” Mohammad Zaman Waziri, commander of the 201 Selab Military Corp, said.  (Tolo News, August 29)

Khaama Press reported that 28 militants have been confirmed killed:

At least 28 Taliban militants were killed following military operations conducted by Afghan national security forces to retake the control of Du-Aab district in Nuristan province.

The Ministry of Defense (MoD) said Afghan national security forces launched a joint military operation under the leadership of the Afghan National Army (ANA) forces to retake the control of last region from Taliban militants in Du-Aab district. (Khaama Press, August 30)

Nuristan is an important stepping-off point in the insurgent strategic effort to recapture control of Afghanistan. The concealment afforded by the mountainous terrain, the routes linking havens in the province to vital support networks in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and the cohesiveness of several anti-government groups with international reach to essential financial resources all conflate to provide the enemies of Afghanistan’s government with a large stepping-off point for attacks against important national infrastructure in Kabul. On Thursday, the chief of the provincial high peace council committee was gunned down in Kabul:

According to Nuristani high peace council committee members, Haji Abdul Halim was assassinated by gunmen riding motorcycle.

The officials further added that Haji Abdul Haleem was returning from the mosque after evening prayers when the gunmen opened fire on him.

A suspect has been arrested in connection to the assassination of Haji Abdul Haleem, the officials said. (Khaama Press, August 29)

An intriguing aspect of the mob-style hit is the target’s former role in the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) insurgent group, identified strongly with both Nuristan and Kunar Provinces. HiG has been an important part of anti-government efforts going back through the wars against Soviet occupation in the 1980s:

Haji Abdul Haleem was a former commander of Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and was considered to be an effective high peace council member who had managed to encourage numerous Taliban militants to join peace process in Nuristan province. (Khaama Press, August 29)

While many analysts would assert that it is possible that Haleem was targeted by members of his former group, anxious to avoid any semblance of cooperation with the Karzai government, others would note that HiG has been noticeably distancing itself from the more virulent anti-government insurgent elements in recent years. Further, HiG has often battled other insurgent groups directly in northern Kunar Province and in Nuristan.

Mission in Nuristan province

The difficulty of addressing the problem in Nuristan often boils down to logistical supply. Given the severely restricted terrain and the lack of infrastructure, most ANSF efforts arrive via air asset, making for better targeting by insurgents with knowledge of ridge lines, mountaintops, and other high ground with visibility of oncoming aircraft. Heavy weaponry has been common in Nuristan throughout the war, heightening the chances for the downing of an aircraft and the loss of large numbers of ANSF personnel:

Kamdesh and Barg-e-Matal districts cannot obtain logistical support on the ground as they have been literally besieged by the enemies since five years. And the military centers of the enemies are stationed in five-kilometer of Barg-e-Matal district since last four years and no any clearance operation has been conducted so far in order to rescue the citizens. And the police and Afghan National Army are logistically supported by the air crafts, but the land transportation is closed to the public and the state staff. (Afghanistan Times, August 25)

The battle for the future of Nuristan depends largely upon the efforts of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) air capabilities and special operations elements. As the battle goes in Nuristan, so will the fight for the future of Afghanistan likely follow. Nuristan (and Kunar Province to the south) are bellwethers, canaries in the proverbial coal mine, for the winds that will be sweeping the next decade of progress in Afghanistan. Will the security forces, aided by the local people of Nuristan, receive the essential support in materiel needed to successfully beat back a resurgent Taliban offensive in the east? That depends upon the investment of ISAF and Kabul in the fight.

For the sake of the Nuristanis, let us hope that they both demonstrate a tenth of the courage of Uzra as she took her last breath defending her family in Barg-i-Matal last month.

(Featured Image Courtesy: DVIDS)