Buried beneath the wall-to-wall coverage of the war in Gaza, the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the plight of Yezidis beset upon by the barbaric hordes of ISIS, the ebola outbreak in Africa, and the media’s insistence on ignoring the war in Afghanistan was an important (and yet largely unrecognized) event this past month in remote eastern Nuristan Province.
On August 1, insurgents conducted a massive attack on Barg-i-Matal District in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Spread throughout the far-flung district in Eastern Afghanistan, hundreds of insurgent fighters attacked Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) outposts, targeted and killed innocent civilians, and burned entire villages to the ground.
Some reports state that as many as 1,000 enemy fighters descended upon Barg-i-Matal, sweeping through multiple villages and killing scores. ANSF personnel, reinforced by other national security elements, fought back and a protracted, days-long campaign by insurgent forces was beaten back.
News of the attacks was slow to trickle through to Western media sources. However, among those with the first reports of the fighting in the restive, remote eastern province was Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan who reports for BBC News. On August 2, Sarwary began to Tweet out reports detailing the size of the insurgent force, the ongoing fighting, and the insurgents’ subsequent burning down of the village. In particular, Sarwary’s Tweets turned out to be the public’s first exposure to the curious and inspiring story of a heroic young Nuristani woman who took up arms to defend her family and her village in the northernmost valley of the district.
Nuristan Province is a secluded and insurgent-saturated area of eastern Afghanistan that has become known throughout most of the last decade for its high profile, massing insurgent attacks on villages such as Kamdesh, Wanat, and Barg-i-Matal. You can find my primer on Nuristan Province here. With extraordinarily scenic mountain ranges, some peaks reaching as high as 20,000 feet, Nuristan’s beauty is matched equally by the ferocity of its terrain.
A seemingly endless series of near-vertical slopes surrounding deep valleys create a foreboding and challenging environment within which to conduct any military operation. Elements of the 10th Mountain Division, 173rd Airborne, 1st Infantry Division, 101st Airborne, and 4th Infantry Division rotated into and out of the area from 2006 until 2010 when conventional Army forces finally withdrew from the region as battlespace owners.
Beginning in 2002, United States Special Operations Forces conducted an untold number of raids, reconnaissance operations, and targeted strikes throughout the duration of the war in Afghanistan. I posted an article on the history of fighting in Nuristan on June 26, titled “Nuristan: Of Kipling and American Valor.” I highlight the history of the legendary Nuristani fighter and the ferocity with which the people of Nuristan are known to carry out defensive actions to protect their villages and families. In the companion to that article, I published a piece at Foreign Intrigue on why aid and development in Nuristan matters: “Nuristan Province: Conflict, Reconciliation, and Development.”
In the latter article, I make particular note of the value of Nuristani women in the battle against a resurgent Taliban movement in the eastern portions of Afghanistan. Women are especially and notoriously deprived of basic rights and medical care in Nuristan. Organizations like The Nooristan Foundation have dedicated incredible amounts of resources and assets to improving the quality of life for Nuristani women. Among the areas upon which the foundation specifically focuses its efforts is the building of simple infrastructure in the province, provisions for basic medical care for women and girls, and the building blocks for educational facilities that could move a marginalized population to literacy:
In order to help facilitate the peaceful end to hostilities between groups and to gain the acquiescence of those groups to leaving the battlefield, development projects are essential. These projects, often funded by foreign donors and governments, are designed to improve quality of life for Afghan citizens. However, each project must find support, funding, and space with which to be implemented. Among the more impressive organizations providing for improvement in quality of life in Afghanistan in the last decade has been The Nooristan Foundation. The Nooristan Foundation has contributed to humanitarian projects throughout Afghanistan but with a specific focus on Nuristan. More specifically, the foundation has focused on improving the lives of women and girls while also working to construct schools and medical facilities. Other organizations have contributed to the establishment of Afghanistan’s legal system, built infrastructure that provides clean water, and medical aid for remote areas such as Nuristan. (Foreign Intrigue, June 24)
Buttressing The Durand Line, Barg-i-Matal district is an extraordinarily difficult area in which to conduct military operations. The value of the high ground is accentuated like nowhere else in Afghanistan – the insurgent routes connecting enemy groups in Pakistan with their forward elements in Nuristan scar the ridgelines and facilitate the movement of supplies and fighters into the Katigal valley. The valley is bisected by the Katigal River, flowing southward from the Nuristan-Badakhshan border to Kamdesh District. In the northernmost portion of Barg-i-Matal is a valley which flows southwesterly from the Katigal river toward southwestern Badakshan.
This valley hides the village hamlet of Pichigram, where 300 insurgents descended on August 1. Though more detailedaccounts of the attack are still trickling into Western media, what has been established about the actions of a single woman in the village, Uzra, are as remarkable as they are astounding. Set upon with massive fire, scores off Nuristani civilians were killed as insurgent fighters pushed into the village. Among those killed in the initial barrage was a member of Uzra’s family.
As bullets flew and grenades exploded, Uzra picked up a weapon. Protecting her three-year-old daughter, Uzra moved to a concealed position and began to return fire. For upwards of two hours, Uzra continued to engage the men attacking her village. One after another, she captured insurgent fighters in her sights and began picking them off with shot after shot. First one. Then another. Then yet another. Reports initially stated that Uzra had killed upwards of seven insurgent fighters. Confirmed reports, publicly substantiated by the provincial governor and police chief, state that Uzra killed four insurgent fighters before her position was overrun.
Uzra and her three-year-old daughter were shot and killed.
In the wake of the battle, insurgents again attacked the district, burning another village to the ground the following day. What has continued to galvanize the attention of Afghans both inside and outside of Nuristan Province, however, is the story of a single woman defending her child and her village. In Afghanistan, Uzra has become a symbol of resistance.
On August 15, Central Asia Online relayed the story of Uzra’s stand:
When Taliban militants August 1 attacked a village in Nuristan Province, Uzra Nuristani responded by taking her husband’s weapon from their room and joining the fight with other villagers. A day before, the Taliban had killed 15 people in a nearby village, including one of Uzra’s family members, Nuristan Province Police Chief Col. Abdul Baqi Nuristani said. So she had a personal reason to feel bitter toward the militants. Thus, when the Taliban came to Uzra’s village, no doubt with plans to conduct similar atrocities, Uzra battled them for two hours, killing four of the insurgents before others killed her and her 3-year-old daughter, he said, describing her fight to protect her family and fellow villagers from Taliban aggression. (Central Asia Online, August 15)
Barg-i-Matal has been the site of multiple high-profile U.S. military battles, the most notable of which was Operation Mountain Fire in the summer of 2009. Augmented by a number of other assets, a small element of 1-32 Infantry Battalion of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division fought enemy forces (numbering as high as 200 fighters in many engagements) and committed large amounts of resources to development of the district center, the training of a local police force, and the establishment of a semi-permanent ANSF outpost that would serve to burgeon the nascent security landscape of the remote and isolated district.
Since 2009, insurgent forces have continued to conduct mass attacks on the district since 2009, often raiding the district center and the villages of Awlagul, Shudgul, Badmuk, Bachancha, Loluk, Semigram, and Pachigram in search of supplies and resources by which to support their efforts to overthrow the provincial government headquarters in Parun, Du Ab District.
Navigating the terrain proved difficult for U.S. military forces and, aside from a handful of raids, no U.S. military unit has owned battlespace in Eastern Nuristan since both 1-32 IN and 3-71 Cavalry Squadron of the 4th Infantry Division pulled back from the area following the battles in Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh in 2009.
On June 1, 2011, Time Magazine’s Julius Cavendish reported on the Taliban’s strategy for re-establishing their control over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance force. Most important among the plans to achieve dominance is the insurgent network’s prioritization of Nuristan in the effort:
The 1978 uprising by landowners and clerics, which led to civil war, the virtual collapse of the government and ultimately the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, began in eastern Nuristan and spread quickly to Kunar. “Trouble here can break the central government,” said Qari Ziaur Rahman, a regional commander for the Taliban who is also a leader of the Punjab-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in a 2008 interview. (Cavenish, Time Magazine, June 2011)
If history is our guide, and informed observers are always careful to consider historical contexts when assessing future events, this lone woman in one of the most remote and isolated regions of the world taking a stand against tyrants could be the inspiration for a movement to counter a resurgent Taliban onslaught in the east. Central Asia Online writes that Uzra may have already become an icon of resistance against the return of the tyrannical Taliban movement:
In the aftermath, many are hailing Uzra for her heroic actions. Uzra’s sacrifices will not be forgotten as she devoted herself and her three-year-old child in the fight against the Taliban, Khatera Naeemi, a women’s rights activist, said. “Uzra is an icon for Afghans,” Naeemi said. “She is a warning for those who murder innocent Afghans that even the Afghan women are fed up with the cruelties being committed against them.” The bravery Uzra demonstrated against the Taliban revives memories of the legendary Malalai of Maiwand, Hawa Alam Nuristani, a lawmaker representing Nuristan Province in the Wolesi Jirga, said. Malalai, the “Grandmother,” is a folk heroine of Afghanistan who, by bearing an Afghan flag, inspired local Pashtun fighters against British troops at the 1880 Battle of Maiwand in Kandahar Province. “Uzra showed that even Afghan women can stand against the aggressive Taliban,” Rahima Nuristani, a woman who formerly lived in the same village as Uzra, said. (Central Asia Online, August 15)
It is in this context that we can truly place a value on the still growing legend of Uzra and her stand against tyrants attacking her village. Nuristanis are famously ferocious fighters. Nuristani women have often been at the forefront of efforts to defend villages from outside attack. However, in the case of Uzra’s stand we find a unique and compelling story of heroism.
Could a national uprising, coalescing around the courageous stand of a woman avenging the death of a family member and protecting her child, be the blowback against the insurgency and catalyze a national movement to beat back a resurgent Taliban movement? Time will tell.
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