Nuristan Province: Conflict, Reconciliation, and Development

Many United States military personnel, having spent the largest part of the last decade preparing for, participating in, or recovering from war operations have had a unique exposure to the work of aid and development organizations throughout their service time in Afghanistan. Conversely, many aid and development workers, reliant on the military’s establishment of security in order to implement projects aimed at improving the quality of life for citizens caught up in the wars, have experienced the application of military doctrine and planning up close throughout their time in Afghanistan. These two utilities will be further integrated in the coming years as asymmetric warfare, counterinsurgency operations, and efforts to stabilize more remote and isolated areas around the world present a unique set of problems for policy makers and security analysts.

Establishment of security, reduction in violence, and the stability borne of traditional military operations to find, fix, and destroy insurgents will precede efforts by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and private foundations to implement aid projects that can drastically impact poverty-stricken, unstable environments and contribute to the effectiveness of military forces in asserting government control over key areas of operation. This will be especially true in theaters throughout the world as coalitions of willing states seek to root out and destroy transnational terrorist groups in the war on international terrorism. Stabilizing areas such as eastern Afghanistan will pay dividends and force multiply military efforts to quell insurgency, lend governments legitimacy as they rebuild war-torn areas, and establish rule of law.

This article is part one of a two-piece series on Nuristan Province in northeastern Afghanistan. Today’s article focuses on the application of development. Part two, which will publish at later this week, will focus on military operations and the battle against the insurgent groups operating throughout the region. An important component in the Afghan national government’s effort to stabilize the war-torn country is the Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission.  The commission is dedicated to ending hostilities between rival factions and groups throughout the country. In halting the open warfare between the groups, the government’s plan is to allow for the instability to give way to development projects that would ostensibly provide opportunity for millions of Afghans. These projects would receive essential support from other states, international aid organizations, and private foreign donors. Specifically in the more restive areas of eastern Afghanistan, the government in Kabul has worked to gain the trust of the localized tribes and villages by empowering individuals and groups to implement policies that provide for infrastructural improvement projects. However, these government-led projects often lack funding and quality leadership.

Nuristan is an important case study in the application of aid and development projects. As lack of government legitimacy foments an environment where insurgency can breathe and grow, infrastructural improvements will be an important part of the battle against militancy in the remote areas of eastern Afghanistan. These projects provide for the basic needs of citizens and offer tangible opportunity for young Afghans can reduce the recruitment pool of supporters and fighters for fundamentalist insurgent groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The application of aid and development projects in Nuristan is a force multiplier for military operations designed to stabilize the region.

Western aid organizations and private foundations have led the way in funding important development projects in Afghanistan for over a decade. In funding and operating programs designed to burnish the establishment of the rule of law and improve vital infrastructure, these organizations and foundations have facilitated improvements in the lives of millions of Afghan citizens. However, in recent years aid and development projects, important pieces in the effort to improve quality of life for Afghans, have been stymied by an erosion of security and subsequent battles between insurgent groups for control over valleys and villages where these aid programs are designed to flourish.

Nuristan, located in northeastern Afghanistan, is noted most prominently for its craggy, mountainous terrain and its cultural isolation. Formerly known as “Kafiristan“, Nuristan has an exceptionally interesting history, one we chronicled for a primer on the area last August. You can read that primer here. Nuristan presents an especially intriguing and complex set of problems for policy makers, aid workers, and security analysts. The dearth of lines of communication, especially roads linking the more inaccessible areas of the two eastern districts of Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh, inhibits the application of many development projects aimed at improving infrastructure for many of the more far-flung villages and valleys. This set of problems is further complicated by the influx of insurgent groups and networks in the last decade. Historically, Nuristan’s tribes have an aversion to outsiders often characterized as extreme xenophobia. However, the lack of Western study of Nuristan has led to an acceptance of mythologies about the people and the cultural history of Nuristan. For an overview of Nuristan, read our Foreign Intrigue article ‘Nuristan: A Primer‘ (published August 19, 2013).

On May 22, The Economist published a blog article, titled Feuding in Afghanistan: A Little Hundred Years’ War, which detailed a recent successful reconciliation effort between the Kamdeshi and Kashtozi tribes of eastern Nuristan province. The two tribes had been in a virtual state of war for the past century, punctuating their efforts to target one another with acquisitions of modern weaponry. The Economist succinctly details the history of the feud:

‘For most of the war’s length, the dispute has concentrated on land and access to a spring that supplies water to Kamdesh district. The Kamdeshis, by far the larger of the two tribes, are said to have forcibly displaced the minority Kashtozi in the 1920s. As they tell it, they were taking what was owed to them from the time of their conversion to Islam. The Kashtozis say that claim was based on forged documents.’ (The Economist, May 22)

The use of improvised explosive devices and light weapons has highlighted recent attacks between the two tribes.

‘The tribes, with a population of about 40,000 in total, have fought on through the generations. From armed raids to cattle-rustling and, with the advancement of modern military technology, landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), their quarrel has remained violent and deadly throughout.’ (The Economist, May 22)

However, some good news in the national effort of the Kabul government to continue its campaign for peaceful reconciliation between warring factions of the country’s complicated tribal dynamic emerged this past spring when the Kamdeshi and Kashtozi tribes agreed to lay down their arms and ensure that the poverty-stricken area remains accessible to organizations that would implement desperately needed aid and development projects:

‘Most encouraging of all, both tribes decided to call on the Afghan state to start delivering essential services to their area: security forces, clinics, schools and de-miners. Historically their part of Nuristan been unwelcoming to any and all outside influences, foreign or Afghan.’ (The Economist, May 22)

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.

In recent years, aid and development projects have progressively disappeared as International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel have withdrawn from the province and turned over responsibility for providing security to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In the wake of the ISAF withdrawal, trans-national insurgent groups and international terrorist organizations have entrenched themselves and have been emboldened to continue undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government. These groups have established havens and refuge from both the efforts of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces that have fought them militarily throughout the duration of the war in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan national government that now takes the lead in the fight, working to eliminate the groups as enemies of the nascent government in Kabul. This is largely dependent on the ability of the provincial and district level governments to extend the reach of security forces into the more secluded villages tucked into far-flung valleys. Following this establishment of security, theoretically the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) that administer aid and development projects can improve infrastructure and affect positively the quality of life for the isolated communities in the region.

Rarelibra, Wikimedia Commons

The districts of Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Rarelibra, Wikimedia Commons

Without plans to implement substantial development programs in places such as Nuristan, the Kabul government will continue to find that the insurgencies that threaten to further destabilize security throughout the country will maintain essential havens for their operations, especially in the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Lack of infrastructure, most specifically in the areas of clean water, medical care, and education, hinder efforts to develop the provinces. If the Afghan government is going to effectively deny haven to fundamentalist militants and their international terrorist patrons, development of Nuristan must be among the highest priorities for Kabul.

For the government of Kabul to galvanize support for its national policies, it must first earn legitimacy in the eyes of the more isolated ares of the country. To do this, Kabul must demonstrate greater transparency and work for more effective governance. Unfortunately, this remains a work in progress even specifically in the Nuristan provincial government. Recently, the scandal surrounding misuse of foreign aid administered to Nuristan resulted in the ouster of Nuristan’s former governor, Tamim Nuristani:

Tamim Nuristani was dismissed as provincial governor for eastern Nuristan province of Afghanistan over misuse of foreign aid to this province.

Nuristani was dismissed along with two other senior provincial government officials and were introduced to Attorney General Office of Afghanistan.

Office of Administrative Affairs and Council of Ministers’ Secretariat, following a statement, said that Tamim Nuristani along with two other officials are accused of misusing hundreds tons of wheat which were given in foreign aid to Nuristan province.

The statement further added that over 3000 tons of wheat was considered by the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) for Nuristan province, however hundreds tons of wheat were misused by the officials including the Nuristan governor.

The two other officials who were sacked from their positions, includes head of the National Disaster Management Authority for Nuristan province and head of the provincial department for rural rehabilitation and development. (Khaama Press, February 5)

Nuristan’s importance lies in its isolation and its location straddling the Durand Line along important facilitation routes from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan to the havens the groups prize throughout Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh districts in Nuristan. The havens in Nuristan represent important staging areas by which these insurgent groups can launch attacks at both Kabul and Islamabad. The de-stabilization of the Islamabad governments is a stated goal of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) while the Afghan Taliban work to undermine the legitimacy of the Kabul government and impede its reach into the isolated areas of eastern Afghanistan.


Barg-i-Matal Village, Barg-i-Matal District, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. July 2009.

Access to clean water is among the most serious problems for aid organizations conducting efforts to provide vital infrastructural improvements in the most isolated areas of Nuristan. Kamdesh and Barg-i-Matal districts are among the most difficult to reach areas for aid organizations, especially in the wake of the divestment of U.S. military security forces from the area in the fall of 2009.

The lack of roads impedes access, the mountainous terrain is foreboding even for those traveling on foot, and the infestation of insurgents in the valleys and small villages dotting the landscape of the province make for a profoundly daunting task in planning application of development projects and the administering of aid. Without access to clean water, diseases that would ordinarily be treatable (or even eradicated) by a modicum of medical aid efforts remain a constant problem for the people of Nuristan. The lack of sustainable sources of electricity compounds the problems with development by hindering educational opportunities and impeding efforts to increase literacy rates.

While aid and development organizations remain committed to assisting the people of Nuristan in building the infrastructure necessary to catalyze development, lack of security lies at the nexus of the problems impeding progress. For many people in Nuristan, access to clean water is among the most important priorities in the effort to develop the area. This acces is made even more difficult by the lack of consistent electricity-producing infrastructure. The valleys in Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh especially have no established road that can sustain the vehicles that would transport supplies necessary to build lasting infrastructure for medical facilities, schools, and utilities such as electricity.

Compounding these issues is the presence of heavily-armed and well-supplied insurgents who use intimidation and taxation to both subjugate civilians and depress local economies in order to ensure haven and safe travel from their logistical supply and command and control points in Pakistan. These salient points highlight the importance of aid and development organizations in filling the gap between what the national government can provide and the essentials that remain outside of the reach of everyday Nuristanis. In order to reduce the spread of disease, provide educational opportunities to improve literacy, and generate opportunity for the next generation of Nuristanis, security must be established and infrastructure must be built. To accomplish this, ANSF must be properly fitted, motivated, and led to destroy the festering insurgencies in Nuristan. Only after the reduction in insurgent dominance in the secluded valleys can aid organizations effectively provide for the infrastructural improvements that would catalyze opportunity for development in Nuristan.

Three Barg-e Matal men

A few men of Barg-i-Matal village, Barg-i-Matal District, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan in July 2009.

Nuristan is what many analysts characterize as ‘key terrain’ in the war on international terrorism. The province’s value in strategic level terms is high due to the presence of groups that straddle the border, conducting operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistani groups to include TTP and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have begun operating in larger numbers in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces in recent years. Afghanistan insurgent groups such as the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) continue to maneuver for control of important areas of the provinces, notably the eastern Nuristan districts of Barg-i-Matal and Kamdesh. The insurgent groups on both sides of The Durand Line prize the routes connecting the remote villages of eastern Nuristan for the terrain’s value in masking the movement vital insurgent fighters, weapons, and logistical supplies from Pakistan’s tribal areas for the Afghan insurgency’s fight against the Kabul government.

Since the divestment of United States military, responsibility for enforcing rule of law and ensuring security in Nuristan has been assigned almost completely to ANSF. Specifically, Kamdesh and Barg-i-Matal districts, buttressing The Durand Line in eastern Nuristan, have been hotbeds of insurgent activity since the middle years of last decade. High profile battles between International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units and the myriad insurgent groups occupying eastern Nuristan in 2009 in both districts served to hasten the withdrawal of forces comprised mainly of U.S. Army personnel. In addition, the ferocity of the battles and the quickness with which insurgent forces were able to re-supply supplanted the high-minded notion of United States strategic planners that the ISAF could sustain presence at camps that became increasingly difficult to reach by ground elements throughout the previous three years of ISAF permanent presence in the area. In this, the security that must be established in order to set the environmental conditions for the important work of aid and development organizations has not been met.

In previous years, the development projects, directed and funded by both state governments (most prominently the United States and its Western alliance partners) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have increasingly become targets for both transnational insurgent groups like the Taliban as well as loosely-cobbled and localized criminal organizations and networks. Both types of groups have used economic means to intimidate and subordinate local citizens and their elected leaders. In enforcing tax collection, insurgent groups inadvertently signal that they lack willing support of a village, valley, or district. The use of force to collect funds with which to purchase weapons and materiel used in conducting attacks on Afghan government and security installations and personnel indicates that the local population refuses to cooperate. Implicitly, this alludes to a need for greater government reach in the establishment of security in the more remote areas.

The susceptibility of these areas, their cragged valleys providing concealment and refuge for insurgent groups under pressure from government and ISAF forces, to the violent imposition of insurgent violence is compounded by the lack of legitimate government control over the areas. In 2010, two specific incidents highlighted the danger facing NGOs and aid organizations in Afghanistan. The first incident involved an aid team conducting medical outreach in Nuristan. On October 5th, a team of aid workers, comprised of six Americans,  two Afghans, a German, and a Briton was attacked in Badakhshan province, after crossing the northern border of Barg-i-Matal district, Nuristan Province. All ten aid workers were killed, the attackers sparing only the Afghan driver of the vehicle carrying the group after he began reciting verses of the Qu’ran. Taliban leaders in Nuristan later denied responsibility for the attack (contradicting their own statements immediately after the killings claiming responsibility) and issued condolences to the families after allegedly confirming the legitimacy of the aid workers’ actions in conducting medical treatment outreach in Nuristan.

The second incident occurred south of Nuristan in Kunar Province. While traveling through Kunar Province via taxi, Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove was kidnapped and taken into an adjoining valley for purposes of ransom by captors later identified as local Taliban-affiliated insurgents. Norgrove was later killed during a rescue mission conducted on October 8th as elements of United States special operations units conducted an ill-fated raid to rescue her in Dineshgal village of the Korengal Valley. The impact of these two incidents was felt most heavily in the isolated communities to which aid and development organizations had previously administered greater amounts of assistance.

The likely outcome of reduced commitment to development in Nuristan is the relegation of an entire generation of Afghan children to continued and worsening poverty. The result of this poverty would be a renewed effort by fundamentalist militants to co-opt these people, creating an impediment for growth of government legitimacy, and rolling back the gains of recent years of development efforts and the sacrifice of military personnel who served in Nuristan. This degradation in development would breed a significant rise in fundamentalist militancy, strengthening an essential network of havens for Al Qaeda as it seeks to rejuvenate its quickly waning international support for anti-Western jihad, held in abeyance in the wake of historical events throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the winter of 1989, international commitment to Afghanistan diminished and then completely disappeared. Left to its own devices, the country devolved into civil war with a myriad of strongmen and warlords battling one another for control of the national government, targeting civilians and paving the way for havens that would support Al Qaeda as the group planned and executed the attack that murdered nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001. The development of Afghanistan is vital for regional security throughout Central Asia. More importantly, development in Nuristan will undermine the efforts of fundamentalist militants who use impoverished villages of Nuristanis as cover for their efforts to continue their campaign of terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States of America.

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: