Nuristan, an isolated area in northeastern Afghanistan, is one of the most dangerous parts of the country. Insurgents wield considerable influence in a region plagued by oppressive rulers and parochial local conflicts. Moreover, the Pakistani Islamic terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Toiba – a signatory to Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for Jihad against the US and Israel – is also active in the region.
Out of bounds
In May 2004, two British employees of Global Risk (a private security firm that helped provide safety for the October 2004 presidential election) were killed in central Nuristan. In September 2004, the office of the non-governmental organization Afghan Aid (one of the very few groups active in the region) was ransacked in east Nuristan. These events made the area off-limits to foreigners; Afghan Aid duly closed its office in Nuristan (but soon plans to reopen).
It is tempting to speculate that these incidents point to a well-organized, successful plan to stop reconstruction efforts and drive out all foreigners from Nuristan. Notwithstanding the plausibility of this hypothesis, there is very little evidence on the ground to back it up. The Global Risk employees were most likely murdered by their own Nuristani escort for their weapons and communications gear worth thousands of dollars.  As in the rest of Afghanistan, crime is rife in Nuristan – and criminal incidents are often claimed by or blamed on insurgents.  The reaction of the expatriate community to the murders was the same as if they were the result of a premeditated attack by insurgents: immediate evacuation of the area. This decision effectively abandoned the whole area to warlords, terrorists and criminals, who feel free to travel and operate in Nuristan. 
Indeed perennial local conflicts are favored by all three elements which thrive on widespread lawlessness. Although there are tribal and village structures in Nuristan, regional institutions are woefully lacking. Therefore there is nothing to stop villages from fighting over water and land rights, which is all too often the norm in Nuristan. In one area near the villages of Barg-e-Matal and Kamdesh in the east, nothing less than tribal war is taking place (including rocket attacks and the mining of opponents’ territory).
The violence helps to keep foreigners and state officials away, which is why local insurgents and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has a foothold in the area, have a vested interest in stimulating local rivalries. 
The insurgents in Nuristan have little to do with the Taliban. Active in Nuristan and the neighboring province of Kunar are veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and an indigenous Nuristani group under the authority of Maulvi Afzal.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s commander in the area, Haji Ghafour, is considered the number one warlord in Nuristan; Maulvi Afzal trails closely behind and is mainly active in eastern Nuristan. In western Nuristan there is a third warlord, General Dod Mohammad; but he is allied to the Northern Alliance and does not fight the Kabul government.
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Maulvi Afzal was the central figure in Nuristan (or at least in its northeastern part). Afzal is to blame for the massive misfortune that has plagued this area for the past two decades. 
Born around 1925 in northeastern Nuristan, Afzal was an accomplished Islamic guerrilla as early as the 1970s, fighting the regimes of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973) and President Daoud Khan (1973-78). Afzal’s grandfather was a key figure in the Islamization of Nuristan following the Afghan conquest of the area at the end of the 19th century (for which he was killed by anti-Afghan Nuristanis).
When the jihad against the Soviet occupation started, Afzal was in Pakistan. Initially the jihad in Nuristan was organized by higher tribal leaders, such as Mohammad Anwar and Dr Amin. But Maulvi Afzal slipped back into Nuristan after the start of the war against the Soviets and managed to wrest control of eastern Nuristan. Afzal transformed the area into an independent state, ostentatiously branded the Islamic Revolutionary State of Afghanistan which was referred to as the Dawlat. It adopted a Wahhabi-Salafist ideology – which helped to raise Saudi and Pakistani money.
The Dawlat had its own ministers, tax system and identification papers. It raised further income by taking 20 percent of all war materiel transiting its territory (and then, as now, Nuristan was a major supply route for insurgents). Moreover Maulvi Afzal fought all jihadi groups in his territory that didn’t submit to his rule. In the late 1980s Saudi Arabia recognized the Dawlat government, helping it to establish independent consulates in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, with the help of local and foreign extremists, Maulvi Afzal – funded by Wahhabi Arabs and Pakistanis – managed to kill or exile the traditional Nuristani leadership. Consequently the region is currently the least educated in Afghanistan; for instance education for girls is still banned. The extreme orthodoxy of tribal leaders, coupled with the ignorance of the wider population makes it easier for extremists to enforce their will.
During the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani Maulvi Afzal went to Kabul as assistant to the minister for Haj and charity. With the advent of the Taliban he returned to Nuristan, where a crisis was brewing: people from another tribe (whose leaders were killed or exiled by Afzal) resented paying taxes to him now that the anti-communist jihad had ended and a new government was in place.
A civil war erupted between Maulvi Afzal’s men on one side and the tax resisters and supporters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on the other. Initially the odds were against Afzal, leading him to enlist the support of the Taliban who sent him soldiers. Taliban assistance proved crucial in Afzal’s victory over the tax resisters and Hekmatyar loyalists. However the introduction of Taliban influence in the area inadvertently curtailed Afzal’s influence, as the former pressured Afzal into not forcing people to pay tax, for fear that they would embrace the Northern Alliance. In fact a combination of Taliban pressure and the worsening of the national civil war forced Afzal to abandon Nuristan and settle in Pakistan where he lived under the protection of the Lashkar-e-Toiba organization.
Maulvi Afzal was probably introduced to Wahhabism when he studied in a madrasa in Pakistan. As early as the 1970s he was leading a group of Wahhabi Nuristanis against the central government in Kabul. In the Indian Subcontinent, the Salafis/Wahhabis are also known as the Ahle-Hadith (People following the Prophet’s Tradition). The terrorist movement Lashkar-e-Toiba (that renamed itself Jamaat-ud-Dawa in 2002) is the Jihadi wing of one such Pakistani Ahle-Hadith party and has strong links to Maulvi Afzal.
Lashkar-e-Taiba (as a pure fighting force) might have been formed in Kunar in 1990 and its initial focus was the Jihad in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, it turned its attention to Kashmir. Maulvi Afzal supported the Lashkar in this venture by sending some of his men to the zone of conflict in Kashmir. Not everybody in his organization supported this decision however, effectively causing a rift.
As of today, Maulvi Afzal appears to be losing ground: one of his most loyal commanders, Najmuddin, surrendered to the government on April 11 after negotiations with the governor of Kunar. It is not quite clear whether Maulvi Afzal is in Nuristan or Pakistan, but he still holds influence in eastern Nuristan. 
Lashkar-e-Toiba is also still active in Kunar and Nuristan. There are rumors in Barg-e-Matal that the group is running a base in an uninhabited area to its north. Their presence might be the source for persistent reports that al-Qaeda is active in Nuristan (Lashkar-e-Taiba was supporting Osama bin Laden).
In late 2003, 1,000 US troops were sent to Nuristan in operation “Mountain Resolve,” apparently targeting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden. Since then there hasn’t been large-scale action in Nuristan, but coalition forces remain active in the region – although they are unwilling to talk about it.
The curse of isolation
The rough landscape and lack of roads and communications makes life in poverty-stricken Nuristan difficult for the population. For instance in winter it is completely isolated. The locals – in the absence of government officials – are still bossed around by uneducated leaders with Wahhabi sympathies. In Nuristan, there is no drug economy. The area with its mountains of up to 6,000 meters is unsuitable for poppy cultivation. However, Nuristan and Kunar have some of the largest forests in Afghanistan. These are now rapidly being cut down illegally and smuggled away to Pakistan. A lot of money is to be made from it and there have been suggestions that in Kunar it is not insurgents but the timber mafia who are responsible for most attacks on coalition troops – because they want to be able to cut away in peace. 
What ultimately makes Nuristan different from the rest of the country is not that there are insurgents, terrorists and criminals in the area, but it is the perennial violence of parochial local conflicts – which the criminal and terrorist elements generally encourage – that makes it unique. 
Nothing much is done about this miserable state of affairs by the central government because the area is so remote that – even with its share of terrorists and insurgents – it is “not a threat to Afghanistan,” says Nick Downie, head of the Afghanistan NGO security office. Therefore – as far as the authorities in Kabul are concerned – Nuristan is just not worth the effort. The authorities, alongside their western backers, can also take comfort in the fact that Nuristan’s isolation means that it can only be a hide-out and not a major base of operations for terrorists.
Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has covered Central Asia and the Caucasus for several years. He holds an MASc in Central Asian Politics from SOAS in London and an MA in Russian and Russian Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
1. This is the most widely accepted explanation: interviews with two aid workers and one security analyst with knowledge of Nuristan in Kabul, April 2005.
2. Nick Downie, head of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office that advises NGOs on security matters believes less than half of all incidents in Afghanistan are insurgency-related: interview with Nick Downie, April 9, 2005, Kabul.
3. Interview with ANSO official in Jalalabad, February 17, 2005 and with an Afghan journalist familiar with Nuristan in an interview in Kabul, April 2005.
4. Interview with an Afghan journalist familiar with Nuristan in Kabul, April 2005.
5. Most of the following details about Maulvi Afzal, the Dawlat and Lashkar-e-Taiba come from an interview with a Western official based in Afghanistan, May 5, 2005. Behroz Khan, the bureau chief of the daily The News in Peshawar, confirmed the link between Maulvi Afzal and Lashkar-e-Taiba (April 12, 2005). The report about a possible Lashkar-e-Taiba base in Nuristan was provided by an Afghan journalist familiar with Nuristan in an interview in Kabul, April 2005.
6. According to the Western official and the aforementioned Afghan journalist, Afzal is in Pakistan, but Behroz Khan believes he returned to Nuristan.
7. Daily Outlook Afghanistan, April 16, 2005.
8. Interview with the aforementioned Afghan journalist, in addition to interviews with employees of Afghan Aid (Kabul, April 6, 2005) and Madera (Kabul, April 7, 2005), two of the very few NGOs operating in Nuristan.