Nuristan Province, Afghanistan is among the least studied places on Earth. The information below provides a limited background that will guide and direct readers to research in the form of useful internet links, analysis, and a short bibliography. Further, we’re hopeful with this post today that a good conversation can begin below for those few that have spent a significant amount of time in Nuristan can share stories and information. It is not all-inclusive. Rather, the links and bibliography are meant to provide direction to further study.
This is the first in a series of posts. It is a starting point from which we’ll examine Nuristani culture, history, socio-cultural norms and way of life, as well as recent military battles that have become the hallmark of American understanding of the region of Nuristan.
In recent years, American military personnel and their International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) counterparts have once again focused the eyes of The West on an intriguing and strategically vital area of the world: the Hindu-Kush mountain range. Many of those of us who have spent significant time in Nuristan maintain an abiding interest in the land, the people, and the culture. For many military servicemen and women that served more recently in Nuristan (specifically in the eastern part of what now comprises the province), the area holds a certain intangible mysticism. Throughout history, the allure of Nuristan has held true for travelers, diplomats, military personnel, and academic researchers. Distinguished even from the surrounding isolated Pashtun area of Kunar, Nuristan is among the most remote places in the world. This military presence has brought greater Western understanding of the region. Analysts have scoured previously limited databases of knowledge in order to glean even the slightest bit of information with which to organize principled approaches to assessing local activities and the presence of international terrorists and their local sponsors. The experiences of these analysts over the course of the recent war have been documented and now comprise a much healthier, though still limited, library of information and understanding of Nuristan.
Nuristan is perhaps best known for being the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s epic tale ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. More recently, American presence and the construction of outposts in eastern Nuristan have been involved in a few of the larger-scale battles in a war in Afghanistan that has raged since late 2001. The insurgent-saturated areas of Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal district where battles such as those at the outpost in Barg-e Matal village and the battle at COP Keating occurred in the summer and autumn of 2009 have been of particularly high profile. Additionally, Waigal was the location of several outposts from 2006-2008; the Ranch House at Aranas village was the site of several large-scale battles, a COP at Bella village was closed in 2008 after threats of large-scale attacks, and of course the battle of Wanat shortly following the closure of COP Bella.
One man has spent an extraordinary amount of time in the region and has contributed mightily to the small base of knowledge that exists for our understanding of the history of Nuristan. Dr. Richard Strand, an anthropologist and a ethno-linguist, has contributed to the world’s understanding of the region with an almost life’s work worth of study in Nuristan, most done prior to the recent war. Those of you looking for a launching place with which to gain a basic understanding of the history and socio-cultural characterizations of the myriad groups of Nuristani people would best be served by accessing Dr. Strand’s Nuristani web page. Widely respected as the Western world’s foremost expert on Nuristan, Dr. Strand has provided what little research and study has been done of the Nuristani languages.
Dr. Richard Strand’s Nuristani Page: the site
Given the isolation of the Nuristani people and the dearth of Western study of Nuristani history, ethno-linguistic origins, and culture, Dr. Strand’s work was and remains seminal. His site is intimidating but it offers a wealth of information on Nuristan that you’ll find nowhere else. It includes some work on the Kalash (Nuristani ‘relatives’ living in Chitral east of Barg-e Matal District and noted for their enclave of non-Muslim culture untouched for the most part in the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan’s wild, wild west). Most Nuristanis practice agriculture and animal husbandry to subsist. Precious gemstones, to include rare types of Tourmaline, are among the valuable natural resources of Nuristan. Rival groups of bandits, militant factions, and recent Islamic international terrorist groups have sought to control many of the precious gem mines in Nuristan in an effort to both fund their activities as well as control the localized economies.
The blog site ‘Ghosts of Alexander’ has done a decent job of facilitating conversation among Americans and Afghans who have had recent experiences in Nuristan through a few posts that are now years old. It has also done a very good job connecting those of us with the unique experience of residing inside local enclaves and villages in Nuristan with a centralized location for discussion and exchange of information. It’s now dated and somewhat subject to the wills and whims of people with some suspect analytical skills but it remains an interesting place for historical information. Some of the comments are obviously contradictory and there is the inevitable claim of subject matter expertise by some commenting who obviously lack even the basic understanding of Nuristani culture, the insurgency fight there, and the history of the region.
More information on recent activity in Nuristan is available via Ghosts of Alexander.
Among the non-fiction books noted for conveying both historical and contemporary experiences of the local culture, traditions, and the people of Nuristan (all of which I have acquired and have read) are:
- The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories by Kipling, Rudyard (May 17, 2012)
- A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Newby, Eric (1956)
- A Passage to Nuristan: Exploring the Mysterious Afghan Hinterland by Nicholas Barrington, Joseph T. Kendrick, Reinhard Schlagintweit and Sandy Gall (Apr 18, 2006)
- The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by Kilcullen, David (February 16, 2009)
- The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by Tapper, Jake (Nov 13, 2012)
- The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan by West, Bing (Feb 22, 2011)
- The Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush by Robertson, Sir George Scott (1897)
- Nuristan Provincial Handbook: A Guide to the People and the Province by Richard Strand, Nick Dowling and Tom Praster (Jun 1, 2009)
- The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan by Macintyre, Ben (Apr 21, 2004)
Those that have recently spent significant time in Nuristan return from the area with stories of heroic battles, gorgeous terrain, and mysterious local Nuristani people. It would be a shame if, in the coming years, the region is not somewhat more inviting to the arrival of those that would research it for better understanding by the rest of the world. Nuristan remains among the most remote and unstudied places on the planet.
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