Foto: Christoph Reuter / DER SPIEGEL

No Man’s Land A Journey To an Afghan Region Where the Taliban’s Grip Hasn’t Taken Hold

For a decade and a half, the forested and rugged region of Nuristan was Afghanistan’s most inaccessible province, a bastion of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. A team of DER SPIEGEL journalists recently traveled to the region for the first time.
By Christoph Reuter in Nuristan, Afghanistan

It wasn't somewhere people went, certainly not Western journalists traveling on their own. The villages and valleys were as inaccessible as imaginary places in novels. After 2005, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's rugged mountains and last virgin forests in the far east but, in many cases, were then ousted by even more radical groups.

Places like Barg-i Matal, Kamdesh, the Shok Valley, almost the entire province of Nuristan, would only pop up in grainy footage from the helmet cameras of American soldiers fighting fierce battles with invisible enemies. They never managed to bring the area under control.

Then, almost a year ago, the Taliban overran the entire country, and the state apparatus imploded.

Suddenly, yesterday's insurgents were Afghanistan's new rulers, and the forbidden mountains opened.

Those who apply for accreditation in Kabul for a particular province are technically allowed to travel there, at least in theory. But who really rules Nuristan's mountains? Western security sources reported as early as March that Islamic State (IS) had already re-established itself in some valleys near the border to Pakistan. And IS terrorist commandos have been blowing up mosques in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities with disastrous frequency for months now, even during Friday prayers.

DER SPIEGEL 31/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 31/2022 (July 30th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Valleys as Inaccessible as Inventions in Novels

Last autumn, the snow began to fall early in the mountains, and a first attempt to travel failed in the mud and cold. The summer presented the opportunity for a new attempt. The window of opportunity could soon close again for years, because, as it turns out, the Taliban doesn't have a total grip on the entire country, after all. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to enter, and they could soon be denied access altogether.

In June 2021, two months before the demise of the old Afghan government, Asadabad, the capital of the border province of Kunar, was the absolute last stop for Western foreigners.

"Far too dangerous," the governor at the time, in his guarded, fortress-like official residence, said in response to all questions about continuing the journey.

Today, Asadabad is a stopover where travelers switch into pickup trucks. The rocky road begins a few kilometers behind the city limits. The "Nuristan Highway," which the people governing the region proudly talked about building for years, has disappeared somewhere in the black hole of corruption. Only a dusty, rocky path leads along intermittent rivers to Nuristan, a province created just under 130 years ago whose name means "land of light." Before that, this was Kafiristan, the land of the infidels, because the steep, forested valleys had offered protection from the Muslim rulers and their armies for centuries. In Kafiristan, they still believed in gods embodied by carved gazelles and helmeted horsemen until the troops of the "iron emir," Abdul Rahman, from Kabul subjugated them in 1895 and forcibly converted them to Islam.

A breathtakingly beautiful area, long inaccessible to outsiders

A breathtakingly beautiful area, long inaccessible to outsiders

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

Gods in the Form of Carved Gazelles

It is still an inaccessible place, and you can see the walls, already decaying, of abandoned American army camps along the dirt road. The white flag of the Taliban flies over some of them, with most in a complete state of ruin. Taliban guards check every vehicle, but they let us pass. The situation is quiet right now. If there’s fighting in the area, the entrances are closed, as happens in Kabul and other cities after bombing attacks.

Less than a year after their abrupt seizure of power , the Taliban have persecuted and intimidated Afghan journalists to such a degree that little is heard from large parts of the country today. At the same time, reports published abroad often describe a population in absolute despair and enslavement and raise the prospect of open revolts.

But how much of that is true? Western journalists can still travel through Afghanistan without encountering too many difficulties. They may only experience small parts of the country, but they at least get an accurate picture of what is happening there.

In the heart of Nuristan, in the small main town of Parun, which the Kabul government could essentially only reach by helicopter for years, the Taliban flags also fly, but so does the old Afghan state flag. The same is true days later in Kamdesh. "We, the original inhabitants, were never actually against the government," elders in both towns say. "But nobody in the rest of the world, even in Kabul, noticed that. All the access routes were in the hands of the Taliban, al-Qaida and other groups, who sometimes denied us passage for months."

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

In the Heart of the Radical Mountains

There had been no military resistance in Parun. When the conquerors drove up in pickup trucks, the governor had already fled and his deputy capitulated. A walk into the forest provides hints of just how weak the former state's influence had been on the area for quite some time. After only a few hundred meters you are standing between palisades, army fortifications, even a tree house that had been built by soldiers in a large fir tree to defend the small town.

Today, life in Parun seems normal. It has been raining since winter almost everywhere in Afghanistan, and even more here. For now, the threat of another drought has been averted. The shelves of the few stores are filled. It isn’t until the second evening in Parun's only restaurant that a traveling salesman from Khost, deeper in the south, begins to tell of the hardship beneath the apparent normality. "We export pine nuts," he says, explaining that they are a commodity in such high demand that farmers get down payments even before the harvest. "Before, there were trade agreements and we were able to export them all over the world. Since the Taliban have been back in power, though, the borders have been sealed. Our only option is to smuggle them to Pakistan, for a fraction of the price."

During the day, strangers from other provinces are always on the move in the mountain forests around Parun, desperately searching for a source of income. "I'm going to hunt marmots," says a young man with a shotgun held together mostly by duct tape. Marmot fat is good for rheumatism, he says, and he already has customers lined up in his hometown of Jalalabad.

The Taliban chief of Kamdesh (fourth from right) with a tribal delegation in Parun: delicate negotiations

The Taliban chief of Kamdesh (fourth from right) with a tribal delegation in Parun: delicate negotiations

Foto: Christoph Reuter / DER SPIEGEL

Gold Prospectors and Marmot Hunters

The only hitch is that the walk to the mountains will still take several days, and he doesn't even have a sleeping bag with him. Nodding sadly, he murmurs that he has also never seen a marmot. But what else is he supposed to do, he asks? A friend is walking next to him who wants to search for gems in the mountains. He doesn’t know exactly which ones he is going to search for, but he has heard that there should be some further up. If that fails, he says, he might join the gold prospectors who have settled by the thousands further north in the Hindu Kush mountains along the riverbanks.

The great dramas of Afghanistan begin in the foothills of Nuristan. The state had hardly had a presence here before either. There had never even been a mobile phone network outside the Parun town limits. The villages produce electricity themselves with small turbines along the rivers. One primary school principal notes that a high school for girls has never existed here, meaning it can't now be closed by the Taliban.

It’s not as if things have changed for the better, he says with a sigh. They weren’t good here before either.

It’s other things that have changed: In Parun's only restaurant, a young member of the Taliban comes at noon and asks all the guests to come to the mosque to pray. He exchanges a few words with the owner and then calls out: "Well, anyone who isn’t eating must go and pray." But everyone here is eating, including the Taliban commander from a neighboring village. No one leaves.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

Negotiations over War and Peace

Especially not the round of tribal elders, who are apparently conducting delicate negotiations in a private room in the restaurant. It's a question of war and peace, says the owner, looking surprisingly relaxed. The Taliban chief of Kamdesh is sitting there with two delegations from the Kamdeshi and Kushtozi tribes, whose murderous feud dates back to the mid-1990s. Parun was chosen as a neutral site.

In the past 20 years, the rest of the world has perceived Afghanistan exclusively as the site of a war waged by the Taliban against Western troops and governments in Kabul. But underneath that there were and are countless small, but no less deadly, petty wars. These feuds are not over who controls the state, but over who owns pastures, forests and water. Like in Kamdesh, where the two sides couldn’t agree on who had which rights to the largest spring in the valley.

One night early in the summer of 1997, the Kamdeshis expelled all the members of the smaller tribe, more than a thousand people, sparking 25 years of guerrilla warfare. The Kushtozis came back and mined the water canals. Battle after battle followed, and hundreds died or got maimed. The war seemed unstoppable so long as fighting continued everywhere in the mountains.

Both sides suffered over those two and a half decades. The end of the great war has now opened up the possibility of settling this smaller one as well. The last round of negotiators meets in the private room, and in the afternoon, they agree to make peace.

A girl in a local costume in Pech Valley

A girl in a local costume in Pech Valley

Foto: Christoph Reuter / DER SPIEGEL

Who Does the Water Belong To?

Mohammed Tahir Hanafi, the Taliban chief of Kamdesh, will later explain that it took months. He says he traveled to Kabul and Jalalabad to meet with the displaced. Then they clarified who would be allowed to return and how a committee would be composed that would be responsible for regulating water distribution in the future. Everything is recorded on slips of paper that his secretary carries behind him in an old-fashioned briefcase.

In an unspectacular ceremony with lemonade and short speeches, the agreement is sealed in the garden of the governor's residence. That this all just happened to happen on these specific days? A coincidence. The fact that it happened at all is also perhaps due to luck. Had either tribe been among the Taliban's mortal enemies, the outcome likely would have been different.

But even in the main village of Kamdesh, a two days' journey further to the north, the farmers and shepherds describe their relief at being able to go into the forest again without fear.

The old flag of the republic still flutters here and there over Kamdesh. "Officially, we haven't yet submitted to the Taliban," clarifies Zakaria Musafir, the new head of the Council of Elders. He’s only 30 years old. But everything is negotiated, nobody wants war. Even the Taliban shura in Quetta, Pakistan, agreed to let the men of Kamdesh keep their weapons for the time being. "The shepherds need them when they go into the mountains. If only because of the wolves."

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

From Kamdesh, a dirt road continues north to Barg-i Matal, the last village before the high mountains. Prior to the arrival of the team from DER SPIEGEL, only one foreigner had been here before, the villagers say. After an hour, once the curiosity has subsided, a man comes and sits with us alone. This has also happened to us in other places before. Each time, they seem to want to get something off their chests.

"I was in the secret service!" one told me. "I was in the Special Forces and traveled with the Americans," confessed another. Hiding here in the middle of nowhere in Nuristan, they discuss their hope of somehow getting to the United States. They make us swear we won’t tell anyone else and then they talk their heads off.

"But why are you telling us all this?" we ask each time, bewildered. "Because I HAVE to talk to someone about it," the answer always goes, or something similar. "You’re strangers, I can trust you! Otherwise, I'll go insane."

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