Social Change in Eastern Nuristan

By Richard F. Strand - Ethnographic Associates LLC | Apr 23, 2012
USAID
USAID
Social Change in Eastern Nuristan

Originally posted December 2009

Eastern Nuristan’s LanDay Sin Valley lies in one of the most ethnically diverse regions of Afghanistan. It is home to the Kata, Mumo, KShto, Kom, Binio, Jamcho, and Jashi tribal peoples, all of whom speak dialects of a single Nuristani language. Among these, the Kata and Kom are the most significant. Non-Nuristani peoples bordering these LanDay-Sin Nuristanis on the east and south include the Khów (Chitralis), Chitrali KalaSha, Damani, Palulo, Gawar, Sawi, and most importantly, Pakhtun (Pashtun) and Gujar peoples. Other linguistically separate Nuristani peoples, the Vai-KalaSha and Vasi (Paruni), lie on the western borders of the LanDay Sin Valley.[1]

Most of these peoples have been forced into their mountainous enclaves through hundreds of years of Pakhtun expansion into the region via the Kunar and Pech Valleys, with the result that most of the above-named peoples confront each other in varying degrees of antagonism. The Pakhtuns, under the leadership of the Afghan Amir, conquered the pre-Islamic Nuristanis in 1896, converted them to Islam, and incorporated them into modern Afghanistan.

Major Social Transitions

The last 40 years have brought numerous transitions to the societies of eastern Nuristan, including: a shift from democracy to theocracy; the loss of traditional culture; resource deprivation; growing dependency; and decreasing clarity along community boundaries.

1. Democracy to Theocracy

Before the Communist government’s attack on the LanDay Sin Valley in 1978,[2] the Nuristanis of the valley governed themselves through community democracy in which the adult males annually acclaimed a body of elders and a body of policemen to maintain the community politically and to enforce community laws.[3] Religious functionaries, be they pre-Islamic shamans or Islamic mullahs, were closely heeded and could sway politics, but they did not have the wherewithal to hold governing authority.

The early phase of the Soviet-Afghan War provided the Nuristanis’ Islamic clergy with access to sorely lacking munitions through the seven jihadist parties run by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Following their traditional custom of appointing a dictatorial leader over tribal affairs in extraordinary times, the Nuristanis were compelled to abandon their grassroots political leaders and rally around the better funded ISI-backed mullahs. After the defeat of the Soviets, the mullahs in Nuristan held onto their power through their assertion that they best could interpret the proper Islamic course towards God’s will, a religious claim not unlike that of their pre-Islamic shamanic predecessors. Because decision-making power fell to the clergy, the need for the traditional system of elected elders and policemen was obviated.

The consolidation of clerical authority in Nuristan was partially interrupted by the intrusion of American forces into the region starting in 2002. The clergy holds the “infidel” (kafir) as their primary boogieman, and when American forces established combat outposts in the LanDay Sin Valley in 2006, the mullahs rallied the populace to once again resist the infidels. After intense battles at BragamaTol (Barg-e Matal) and Kombrom (Kamdesh) in September and October 2009, the Americans ceded the LanDay Sin Valley to the mullahs and their Hizb-e Islami and Taliban backers, while leaving pro-government residents in the lurch. At the expense of traditional tribal democracy, theocratic, anti-infidel rule in eastern Nuristan is now more entrenched than ever.

2. Loss of Traditional Culture

Traditional cultural knowledge and practices have been suppressed or modified under the ideological dictates of the new theocracy. Notable is the suppression of traditional Nuristani songs, which encode tribal history and are now mostly unknown by the younger generation.

In traditional Nuristan no one could marry kinsmen within their parents’ or grandparents’ patrilineages (“clans”). This rule of exogamy assured that the tribe remained integrated through marriage among genealogically distant patrilineages. Under clerical dictates, exogamy lost out to Islamic-sanctioned, endogamous cousin marriage of the type practiced by Pakhtuns, and the integration of patrilineages was diminished as people married close rather than distant kin. While this process has been progressing since the conquest of 1896, the economic troubles brought by war have accelerated endogamous marriage, which conserves the resources of the extended family, but which exacerbates differences among patrilineages and weakens tribal unity.

The primary characteristic of the LanDay-Sin Nuristanis’ traditional culture is their language, but since 1978 it has become swamped with mullah-introduced Arabic loanwords that often replace traditional Nuristani words. Nuristani populations that live in Pashto-dominated areas such as Kunar have adopted Pashto as a first language, in a final step toward Pakhtunization.

3. Well-Resourced to Under-Resourced

A recent US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded report[4] has confirmed that both drought and increased population have negatively impacted Nuristan’s resources since the 1960s.

Flow from highland water resources, including winter snowpack and monsoonal rainfall, has decreased over the last 40 years. Forests have suffered moderate dieback from lack of water. In the LanDay Sin Valley the communities of Kombrom and KShtorm (Kushtoz) went to war over water resources in 1998, resulting in the destruction of KShtorm and the dispersal of the KShto people.

Before the Soviet-Afghan War scientific healthcare had not penetrated Nuristan, and high infant mortality kept the population in check. After becoming refugees in Pakistan during that war, Nuristanis received access to primary healthcare, resulting in a plummeting infant mortality rate and an approximate doubling of their population since 1970. The adjoining Pakhtuns and Gujars have grown at an even greater rate, and the overall resulting pressure on the region’s forests for fuel has greatly diminished that resource over the last four decades.

4. Self-Sufficient to Dependent

Before the first road penetrated the LanDay Sin Valley in the early 1960s, Nuristanis were virtually self-sufficient. Their few imports (salt, iron, cloth, and trinkets) came mostly via Chitral or Badakhshan rather than through their Pakhtun enemies in Kunar. The road brought a modicum of commerce that began to integrate eastern Nuristan into Afghanistan’s national economy.

Not until Pakhtun timber merchants began paying Nuristanis to cut their valuable deodar cedar forests in the 1990s did the road allow a significant transformation of the daily lives of Nuristanis, especially women. In communities such as Pitigal timber revenues allowed the women to purchase produce rather than grow it themselves and the men to purchase meat and dairy products rather than raise them themselves. Instead of going to the fields to labor all day, the women stayed home for more housewifely duties, and the men built new homes on their farmlands instead of tending their livestock.

Timber subsidies dropped after the Kabul government imposed a moratorium on timber-cutting in 2002, but the loss of revenue was offset by the rise in contracts and jobs funded by foreign donors operating through NGOs and ISAF commanders in the region. That income stream dropped off as the jihadists displaced American forces in the LanDay Sin Valley, and income-dependent locals were forced out because of their association with infidels.

5. Compact to Diffuse

Boundaries around communities have gone from compact and sharply drawn to diffuse and fuzzy — an indication of the breakdown of tribal solidarity.

In pre-Islamic times, Nuristani communities were strategically built as compact villages on defensible ground, and boundaries between each community’s lands were, for the most part, well defined.

During the decade of peace before the Communist coup of 1978, many Nuristanis moved away from the villages to their outlying farmland, where many new small communities sprang up. During this time, pressure on the Nuristanis’ southern boundaries increased from expanding Pakhtun and Gujar populations looking to exploit the Nuristanis’ alpine pastureland.

As residents of the region brought their burgeoning families back from Pakistan after the Communists’ fall in 1992, there was a scramble for land in the Kunar Valley from Barikot southward. In the war’s wake, some Kom Nuristani landlords in Kunar lost control over their lands, which became increasingly settled by Pakhtuns and Gujars. The result is that a diffuse, pixilated boundary now lies between Nuristani and Pakhtun lands along the Kunar River.

Conclusion

Between economic hardships and the relentless anti-infidel propaganda of the local jihadist mullahs, a growing number of Nuristanis have turned villages like Pitigal into “al-qa‘ida” communities, where democratically-oriented residents have either moved out or are hunkered down for a long term of oppression. How far the mullahs of the LanDay Sin can go in bringing peace and governance to eastern Nuristan remains to be seen, and whoever ultimately governs the region will have to deal with the accelerating effects of climate change and overpopulation.

 

[1]. An overview of the region’s ethnic groups and languages appears on this author’s website: Richard F. Strand, Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site, 1997-present, http://users.sedona.net/~strand.

 

[2]. Anwar Amin, The True Story of Our Jihad, on Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site (1992), http://users.sedona.net/~strand.

 

[3]. Richard F. Strand, “A Note on Rank, Political Leadership, and Government among the Pre-Islamic Kom,” in Karl Jettmar, in collaboration with Lennart Edelberg, Cultures of the Hindukush: Selected Papers from the Hindu-Kush Cultural Conference Held at Moesgard 1970 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1974), pp. 57-63.

 

[4]. Richard F. Strand, Jim Du Bruille, Irfranullah Sahibzada, and Ziarat Gul. Nuristan Natural Resource Assessment (Jalalabad, Afghanistan: International Foundation of Hope [for USAID/LGCD], 2009).

 

The last 40 years have brought numerous transitions to the societies of eastern Nuristan

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