Osama bin Laden in Kafiristan?

Bad news for Nuristan, the remote and isolated region of Afghanistan’s central mountains, known until just over a century ago as Kafiristan (land of the infidels) because of the survival of the ancient Indo-European nature religion there. The region straddles the border with Pakistan, and on the Pakistani side the name Kafiristan, and the ancient “pagan” religion, still survive. Its isolation has kept it out of the war which has wracked Afghanistan for the last generation—but perhaps not for long. The anti-terrorist Jamestown Foundation website claims that the recent US anti-Taliban offensive (which resulted in the loss of a Chinook helicopter and several US soldiers), dubbed Operation Red Wing, has forced Osama bin Laden to take refuge in Nuristan:

The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and U.S efforts to capture and kill him have made many media headlines over the years, resulting in some plausible speculation and many figments of the imagination. But the June 28 U.S. military operation in Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunar province may have stirred the hornet’s nest of Praetorian Guards around the al-Qaeda leader, who is presumed to be ensconced in the 15,000-foot-high mountains and steep forested valleys of Nuristan province just north of Kunar, and the U.S. military may have come closer to its quarry than ever before…

While speculation about bin Laden’s whereabouts continue today, more than likely he is holed up in Nuristan, and the ongoing U.S. military action just to the south in Kunar seems to bolster that argument. Moreover, the Pentagon announced on July 11 that 700 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division will be deployed from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to Afghanistan in the next two weeks to fight terrorism and provide security for the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections in September.

Will these troops be invading the mountain redoubt of Nuristan?

Little information is forthcoming. But a few ominous references to Nuristan have been popping up in the news. James J. Robbins writes for National Review July 1:

Not much has been released yet about Operation Red Wing, but the location is intriguing. Kunar Province is northwest of Kabul on the Pakistan border, some of the most unforgiving mountainous terrain in the country, and a long-time terrorist haven. The area was once part of Kafiristan, the “land of the unbelievers,” a name probably best known from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.” It was the last part of Afghanistan to be forcibly converted to Islam (in 1896), and was renamed Nurestan, “land of the enlightened,” which is still the name of the province bordering Kunar to the north. It has since ironically become a center for Muslim extremism, and was an important Mujahedin base of operations during the war with the Soviet Union. Gulbuddin Heymatyar — leader of the Hezb-i-Islami movement, one of the primary beneficiaries of U.S. aid in the 1980s — who is now in a declared state of jihad with his former benefactors, is said to be holed up in or near Kunar.

There is some confusion here between the vaguely-defined region of Kafiristan/Nuristan, including parts of Kunar province, and Nuristan province proper, which has heretofore been spared embroilment in the war due to its isolation, and where Islamist extremism has not gained a wide following. Local conflict in Nuristan province is largely between rival tribes over access to resources such as timber and water, exacerbated by the area’s extreme poverty. The UN news agency IRIN on June 28 ran an exclusive interview with Mohammad Tamim Nuristani, the newly-appointed governor of Nuristan. Noted IRIN: “Development work and aid has all but dried up in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan because of the lack of security and only a minimal government presence.” Said Tamin Nuristani:

We have three major [local tribal] disputes in Nuristan. One is between the Kushtuz and Kamdish people from 12 years now. Another is [between the] Arans and Wigal and again it is land and water dispute. And in western Nuristan we have the Zunya and Peyar dispute.

I have started working on reconciliation of the tribes involved in the disputes. With the issue of Kamdish and Kushtuz, with the help of UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] we are very close to solving the dispute there. The resolution of disputes takes a bit of time as it has been there for very long and a lot of people have been killed or disabled and even the entire Kushtuz village had been burnt.

The UK Guardian on June 17 ran a story on new pressures faced by the region’s indigenous people, the Kalasha, in Pakistani Kafiristan:

Reputed to have descended from the armies of Alexander, the Kalasha have lived for thousands of years in a nest of idyllic valleys near the Afghan border. But their identity is being threatened by Muslim missionaries, tourism and neglect by central government. The Kalasha are the last remnants of the population of Kafiristan, the ancient “land of infidels” that straddled the borders of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. About 4,000 of them survive in three majestic valleys that awe visitors as a sort of paradise lost… Compared with many compatriots beyond their valleys, the Kalasha are charmingly liberal: drinking wine, holding dancing festivals and worshipping a variety of gods. Women wear intricately beaded headdresses, not burkas, and may choose their husband…

Modern life is tough for the Kalasha. The valleys are cut off for months each year by snow; there is no doctor; education levels are low; and bad hygiene has triggered a plague of diseases. The construction of a rocky access road across the mountains in the 1970s ended centuries of isolation, but not all of the visitors have been welcome. Muslim immigrants now outnumber the Kalasha by almost two to one. Eleven madrasas have been built. Two more are being built. Community leaders say missionaries offer money, clothes, land and educational scholarships in exchange for conversion…

Tourists and aid workers pose another threat. The number of British visitors has dramatically increased since the Kalasha featured last year on Michael Palin’s television series Himalaya… But little of the extra income finds its way into Kalasha pockets. A string of small hotels has sprung up along the valley floor. Many sport garish cola advertisements and unlikely menus offering macaroni and “franch fries”. Nearly all are owned by Muslims or outsiders.

The notion that the Kalasha are the descendents of Alexander’s Greek army was the key plot device in Rudyard Kipling’s story. In November 2001, when the US was invading Afghanistan, the New York Times erroneously reported that Kafiristan was a fictional creation of Kipling. (See WW4 REPORT #7) While this was doubtless a simply ignorant statement, the Times may have been technically correct in spite of itself that Kafiristan does not exist (in a strictly bureaucratic sense); there is conflict in Afghanistan about whether the province of Nuristan was legally created. Nuristan was among provinces drawn up by Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Tajik-dominated government in 1995, seen by southern Pashtuns as a bid to dilute their power. The Kalasha and other tribes of the region, it seems, are merely a political football to Afghanistan’s power-brokers. (See WW4 REPORT #27)

Others hold that Kalasha does not derive from Greek, but is actually an indigenous Indo-European tongue (which means, ironically, that Greek may be derived from something akin to Kalasha). This question makes Kafiristan of special interest to linguists and philologists. The slightly geekish if quite astute IshiPress.com provides a very interesting comparative vocabularly of Kalasha and other regional languages, depite its incongruous and annoying James Bond soundtrack (the only conceivable connection to the subject matter being that Sean Connery played the lead in the 1975 movie version of The Man Who Would Be King.) The site notes that the Nuristani language is spoken mostly by the 10,000 or so “Red Kafirs” in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, while the related Kalasha tongue is spoken by the approximately 3,000 “Black Kafirs” in Nuristan proper. Both are considered Dardic languages, a sub-group of Indo-Iranian. The site also provides a comparative analysis of Kalasha and Greek. A good overview of the contemporary pressures faced by the Kalasha of Pakistan is provided by Peter Parkes of the University of Kent anthropology department, noting the erosion of indigenous knowledge and self-suffient way of life under the onslaught of tourism and NGO paternalism. It is all too telling that the Kalasha are threatened both by war in Afghanistan and by peace—with attendant tourism development and “globalization”—in Pakistan.

See our last post on Afghanistan and on autonomy struggles in northern Pakistan.