What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Notes about the Korengal Valley

Not so long ago, after the New York Times put out an article about the Korengal Valley, titled "Battle Company Is Out There," there was an upsurge of interest in what was going on or down there. Afghanistan watchers were fed pictures of a gorgeous place the beauty of which seems to make the bloody fighting there all the more terrifying. Cliffs, gorges, pine trees, IEDs and automatic weapons fire make for a deadly combination in this corner of Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistani border, where according to some calculations as much as one-fifth of all the fighting in Afghanistan might be taking place (that would be dependent on methodology employed to calculate that, of course).
The New York Times article gave one an extremely dark mood, presenting not a picture of "apocalypse now," really, but, like, apocalypse at the very moment one starts even thinking of putting down the word apocalypse. But at the same time it gave good coverage by pointing out some of the social context of the fighting, such as:
- The traditional presence of Wahhabi Islam in the valley.
- The ethnically distinct population of the valley (mentioned by now simply as "Korengalis" as such).
- That ancestors of today's Korengalis settled there coming to an agreement with a local section of the Pashtun Safi tribe, after having had to leave their original home, Nuristan behind.
- That not the entire Safi tribe was at peace with these historic "newcomers" to Kunar.
- That amid the destruction of several decades' warfare the illegal timber trade became an ever more important source of livelihood for people in Kunar province.
- That timber lords were involved in armed conflicts with each other.
- The conflict between timber lords of the Pech river valley and Korengalis was specifically mentioned.
- The grievance created by U.S. forces siding with the Pech river valley timber lords was pointed out.
- Haji Matin was named as a Korengali timber lord who is a particularly noteworthy enemy after coalition forces bombed his house in the past, killed some of his family and generally harmed his business.
- And finally, definitely not to be missed, there's the significance of the closeness of Pakistan from where Wahhabi and likeminded foreign fighters can come in and join the Korengalis fighting coalition troops (Arabs, Uzbeks, Pakistani Pashtuns and Punjabis as well as, according to the article, Chechens, but you shouldn't remember the mention of Chechens really). Foreign fighters, one feels, are coming in in such numbers there, that they may be the numerically more significant party even, I don't know.
Ghosts of Alexander quickly reacted to the challenge to analyse the complex issue of whatever is taking place in Korengal, and offered an overview of the existing ethnographic literature that can help with regards to the Korengali valley's people - with the caveat that research was done on their ethnic kin, the "Pashai," elsewhere only, and not really in the Korengali valley proper.
What struck me recently was the detail of a story that I covered at this site earlier, that of Operation Redwing, from back in 2005. Three Navy SEAL commandos died when they were doing a pre-raid observation on the suspected base of men of an HiG associate, Ahmed Shah's network, which was involved in manufacturing and supplying IED components to the various armed groups active in the valley against the coalition (the Marine battalion there at the time reckoned with 22 distinct groups according to Ed Darack, photo reporter at the scene with the Marines). The observation team consisted of four SEALs, and the fourth member of the team could near-miraculously get away from the firefight in which his fellow SEALs died. Meanwhile a rescue team of sixteen soldiers (Navy and Army) was also lost when an RPG exploded in their descending helicopter.
The Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, who could get away from the firefight (haven't yet read his book, though it should contain some key information I guess!), was semi-unconscious when a shepherd found him and took him to his house. Going on with Time Magazine here:
"After taking the SEAL to Sabari-Minah, Gulab called a village council and explained that the American needed protection from Taliban hunters. It was the SEAL's good fortune that the villagers were Pashtun, who are honor-bound never to refuse sanctuary to a stranger. By then, said Gulab, "the American understood that we were trying to save him, and he relaxed a bit."
The Taliban was not so agreeable. That night the fighters sent a message to the villagers: "We want this infidel." A firm reply from the village chief, Shinah, shot back. "The American is our guest, and we won't give him up as long as there's a man or a woman left alive in our village." As a precaution, the villagers moved the injured commando out of Gulab's house and hid him in a stable overnight, until it was safe for Gulab to make the six-hour trek down to the U.S. base at Asadabad and report that the SEAL--by then the subject of an intense search--was alive. Sometime later, Gulab went back to his village and then returned to Asadabad with the commando, this time reuniting the wounded and weary SEAL with his jubilant comrades."
Now, HiG or any other group is simply "Taliban" to Time here, that's fine, we're used to this from journalists in cases when they can only afford to have a passing interest in the affairs they're writing of.
It's more interesting to know that Sabar-i-Minah is a Pashtun village somewhere near the Sawtalo Sar mountain and the villages of Chichal and Kandlay, where Operation Redwing was taking place. Here are two maps for you to consider. Sorry for the poor quality of the upper image - the name of Chichal should be readable there, though, and moving down you find Kandlay. Upwards from Chichal you find the inscription indicating the Sawtalo Sar mountain.So, as you see, Chichal and Kandlay are not in the Korengali valley itself but in a capillary running down to it (the part of the Korengali valley that the New York Times wrote of was the section between Yaka China and Korengal which you can see on the second map). But anyway, all of these places are concentrated in a fairly tight space. The Pashtun village concerned may or may not be inhabited by members of the Safi tribe, and they may or may not be from the section of the Safi tribe that is friendly in general to the Korengalis. If they are not friendly for some reason, and Marcus Luttrell's hosts' kindness reveals some wider conflict as well, that's an interesting issue to look at. How's that related to the timber trade? Or any other issues?
NPS has a tribal map of Kunar on offer here. If you consult it, the area where the Korengali valley and the Pech valley are is indicated as a predominantly Safi area. Pashais make up a majority towards the northeast of the province rather, with Nuristanis and Pashais regarded and indicated as distinct from each other on that map.
I thought this all might be interesting to look at.
It's bad I couldn't find Sabar-i-Minah (if it was properly named) anywhere on a map. That could be useful as well. I asked Ed Darack in an e-mail about some of the things that might be useful to know, and I'd be glad if he could answer later on. Anyway, Darack has a book coming up about Operation Redwing which should be pretty interesting to Korengal watchers.
P.S.: People investigating these issues on the ground put themselves in harm's way. Just in from the nowadays supposedly more secure Loya Paktia area, Khost province: news of Michael Bhatia's death. Ghosts of Alexander pays tribute here.


Anonymous said...

Umm... I wouldn't trust anything on NPS' website without independent verification.

Anonymous said...

Chichal and Kandlay are in the Korengal Valley. Everything from the mountain tops to th east, west and south that are around the Korengal River make up the Korengal Valley. Also the comments of the B Co Commander about the outgoing 10th Mountain Division soldiers in the New York Times article was a very inaccurate telling of the mental and physical state they were in.

Further more I would just like to highlight that the soldiers of 2nd Platoon A Co, 1-32 IN, 10th Mountain captured several individuals who were involved in the shooting down of the Chinnok helicopter. This individuals were captured in the Kandlay village.