why nuristan matters?

Link via Ghost of Alexander

The short answer to this would be to just show you the Nuristan-Kunar anti-coalition infiltration corridor that crosses the Pakistani border. Via page 65 of Antonio Giustozzi’s book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop:

Nuristan TalibanNuristan Taliban

Show this map to an old Soviet officer who served in the region and he will tell you that those routes look exactly like the mujahideen infiltration routes from the 1980s. But even before the Soviet invasion Nuristan was in revolt against the Communist government in May 1978.[1] Some of the Nuristani elite, since the region’s forced conversion to Islam after the invasion of the army of the Afghan Amir Abdurrahman in 1895-96,[2] were given a favored position in Afghan government, especially in the Afghan military.[3] Louis Dupree, in the 1970s, provided a version of the “ethnic pecking order in Afghanistan: Pashtun, Tajik, Nuristani, Uzbek, Turkmen, Aimaq, and then Hazara at the bottom.[4] The new Communist government purged these Nuristanis (or they fled from Kabul with their lives, if they were lucky). But given the fragmented nature of Nuristan (a region with a great deal of diversity) the initial revolt could have had more to do with local issues than with the dire situation of one of those army officers with the surname “Nuristani.”

Photo by Max Klimburg of Nuristani Village in Waigal Valley:

Waigal NuristanWaigal Nuristan

Religion is, to grossly understate it, a very important factor in the recent history of Nuristan. Originally home to a host of deities, the Muslim invasion marked the end of the polytheistic beliefs. The Muslim army destroyed the temples, shrines, effigies and numerous ancestor figures while mullahs were imported to “re-educate” the population. They did face difficulties in destroying the traditional belief system but eventually triumphed over the local beliefs.[5] The region, previously referred to by outsiders as Kafiristan (Land of the Infidels) was renamed Nuristan (Land of Light/Enlightenment). But this was not the final conversion, there came another wave of “conversion.” Antonio Giustozzi notes that Nuristan was “colonized” by Salafis by the 1990s.[6] Klimburg refers to this influence as Wahhabi (loosely, a Saudi brand of Salafism):

“Islam is on the rise also in Nuristan, where one finds nowadays an ever increasing number of haji, for the most part unemployed, and mullahs educated in different madrassas in Pakistan. The northern valleys even have gone through a period of ‘re-Islamisation’, as they were converted to Wahhabism. Wahhabi and other religious village schools provide some education, and several of the local mullahs now pride themselves on having completed higher religious studies in Saudi Arabia. In most parts of present-day Nuristan, music and dance, once greatly cherished and widely performed, have virtually disappeared, the victims of Sunni or Wahhabi fundamentalism.”[7]

Pre-Islamic ancestor effigies at a burial ground (source):

As far as the Taliban was concerned, it was better to strike a deal with the local power brokers in Nuristan than to invade. After the fall of the Taliban government the same pattern was repeated with no “strongman” who could prevent the continuing fragmentation in Nuristan post 2001. The weak central government, like the Taliban, instead made arrangements with various local leaders. (pg 64) But early in the post-2001 era anti-coalition foreign fighters were already active in Nuristan as well as Khost, Paktika and Kunar. Giuztozzi claims that by 2002-3 insurgents in Nuristan operated with little check on their activities.[8]

So what of the current situation in Nuristan? Nuristan is like another Afghanistan within Afghanistan. To make any generalizations about a region with such a high level of diversity, based on the available published material, is quite risky. Even Richard Strand, one of the very few authorities on Nuristan, admitted he had recently provided incorrect analysis because of a deceptive source. What seems to be clear is that the situation is “not good.”

And on the military front? Anti-coalition forces here are both from Pakistan and local. How many? Giustozzi estimated, based on press reports, UN, US military and NATO/ISAF sources, that there were about 200 fighters in Nuristan in 2006.[9] They seem to have a high level of capability, according to Abu Muqawama. The situation today? Who knows.

The situation in Nuristan, aside from the conflict, is quite dire. The region is isolated, underdeveloped, neglected and has undergone environmental devastation, as you can see from this satellite image of tree cover:

The environmental analysis can be found here.

Here’s a bibliography for Nuristan that I’m continually updating for The Afghanistan Analyst:



Cacopardo, Alberto M., and Ruth Laila Schmidt (2006) (eds.): My Heartrendingly Tragic Story. ShaikhMuhammad Abdullah Khan ‘Azar’. Oslo.

Edelberg, Lennart (1984): Nuristani Buildings, Aarhus.

Edelberg, Lennart, and Schuyler Jones. 1979. Nuristan. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt.

Jettmar, Karl (1975): Die Religionen des Hindukusch (with contributions by Schuyler Jones and Max Klimburg). Stuttgart

Jettmar, Karl (1986): The Religions of the Hindukush. Vol. 1: The Religion of the Kafirs. London (revised translation of Jettmar 1975), pp. 155-202

Jones, Schuyler. 1966/1969. An Annotated Bibliography of Nuristan (Kafiristan) and the Kalash Kafirs of Chitral. 2 parts, Copenhagen.

Jones, Schuyler. 1974. Men of Influence in Nuristan. London and New York: Seminar Press.

Klimburg, Max 1999. The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush: Art and Society of the Waigal and Ashkun Kafirs. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Robertson, George Scott (1896): The Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush. London.

Scheibe, Arnold (1937) (ed.): Deutsche im Hindukusch. Bericht der Deutschen Hindukusch-Expedition 1935 der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft. Berlin.

Snoy, Peter (1962): Die Kafiren. Formen der Wirtschaft und geistigen Kultur. Frankfurt.

Articles, reports, and book chapters

Buddruss, Georg (1960): “Zur Mythologie der Prasun-Kafiren”, in: Paideuma 7, pp. 200-209.

Buddruss, Georg (1974): “Some Reflections on a Kafir Myth”, in: Karl Jettmar and Lennart Edelberg (eds.), Cultures of the Hindukush. Selected Papers from the Hindu-Kush Cultural Conference held at Moesgård, 1970, Wiesbaden, pp. 31-6.

Buddruss, Georg. 1987 ‘Ein Ordal der Waigal-Kafiren des Hindukusch’, Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 41, 1987, pp. 31 – 43.

de Bures, Alain. (n.d.). ‘Historique de la succession de con its qui opposent les communaute´s de Koustoz et de Kamdesh au Nouristan-est et qui a abouti a` la destruction des quatre villages de Koustoz’, Unpublished manuscript, MADERA.

Dupree, Louis. 1978. ‘Nuristani’, in Richard V. Weeks (editor), Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press.

Edelberg, Lennart. 1960. ‘Statues de bois rapportées du Kafiristan à Kabul après la conquête de cette province par l’Emir Abdul Rahman en 1895/96′, Arts Asiatiques 7(4), pp. 243-86.

Edelberg, L. 1965. ‘Nuristanske Sølvpokaler’, Kuml Yearbook for the Jutland(?) Archaeological Society, Aarhus 1965, pp. 153 – 201.

Katz, David J. 1984. ‘Responses to Central Authority in Nuristan: the case of the Vaygal Valley Kalasha’, in Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan. M. Nazif Shahrani and Robert L. Canfield (editors). Berkeley, California: Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Klimburg, Max. 1990. “Kulturformen bei den Kafiren des Hindukusch”, in: Mitteilungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, vol. 11, pp. 47-60.

Klimburg, Max. 2001. ‘The situation in Nuristan’, Central Asian Survey, 20(3): 383-390.

Klimburg, Max. 2001. ‘The present situation in Nuristan’, in Christine Noelle, Conrad Schetter, and Reinhard Schlagintweit (editors), Afghanistan – A Country without a State? Frankfurt am Main.

Klimburg, Max. (No date). ‘Between Myth and Reality: How Legendary Kafiristan became Nuristan,’ Fikrun wa Fann (Art and Thought) Vol. 78. Online: http://www.qantara.de/uploads/540/FWF_78_Between_Myth_and_Reality.pdf

Klimburg, Max. 2002. ‘The Arts and Culture of Parun, Kafiristan’s “Sacred Valley”‘, Arts Asiatiques 57: 51-68.

Klimburg, Max. 2004. ‘The Arts and Societies of the Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’, Central Asian Affairs 35.3: 365-386.

Sarianidi, V. 1999. ‘Near Eastern Aryans in Central Asia’, Journal of Indo-European Studies 27.3-4: 295-326.

Strand, R. 1974. ‘A Note on Rank, Political Leadership and Government among the Pre-Islamic Kom.’ In: K. Jettmar and L.Edelberg, eds., Cultures of the Hindukush. Wiesbaden, pp. 57 – 63.

Strand, Richard F. 1984 ‘The Evolution of Anti-Communist Resistance in Eastern Nuristan,’ in Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan. M. Nazif Shahrani and Robert L. Canfield (editors), pages 77-93. Berkeley, California: Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

Strand, Richard F. 1984. ‘Nuristanis’, in Muslim Peoples. (2nd Edition), ed. Richard V. Weekes, 2: 569-574. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Strand, Richard. 2006. ‘Topics in Vâsi Ethnography by Zaman Xân’, last revised in 2006: http://users.sedona.net/~strand/Nuristani/VasiCulture/ZamanXan.html

Strand, Richard F. 2003-07. ‘The Current Political Situation in Nuristan’, Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site. Available online at: http://users.sedona.net/~strand/Current.html

Dissertations and Theses

Brillet, Marie. 1998. ‘Study of the socio-political organisation and identification of village organisations in the Wama-Parun valley (Nuristan, Afghanistan)’, Unpublished MA thesis. Paris, Universite Paris I (Institut d’Etude du Developpement ) and MADERA.

Katz, David J. 1982. Kafir to Afghan: Religious Conversion, Political Incorporation, and Ethnicity in the Vaigal Valley, Nuristan. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Keiser, R. Lincoln. 1971. Social Structure and Social Control in Two Afghan Mountain Societies. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Rochester.

Nuristani, Ahmad Yusuf. 1992. Emergence of Ulama as Political Leaders in the Waigal Valley: The Intensification of Islamic Identity. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Arizona.

[1] Vincent Schneiter, ‘La guerre de liberation au Nuristan’, Les temps modernes, special issue July-August. 1980.[2] Max Klimburg. (No date). ‘Between Myth and Reality: How Legendary Kafiristan became Nuristan,’ Fikrun wa Fann (Art and Thought) Vol. 78. Online: http://www.qantara.de/uploads/540/FWF_78_Between_Myth_and_Reality.pdf; p. 15

[3] Dorronsoro, Gilles. 2005. Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press: p. 32-3.

[4] Louis Dupree. 2002 Reprint. Afghanistan. Oxford University Press: p. 161.

[5] Klimburg, p.15-16.

[6] Giustozzi, Antonio. 2008. Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 64.

[7] Klimburg, p. 19.

[8] Giustozzi, pp. 35, 64.

[9] Giustozzi, p. 68

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