- Into the Korengal
[End Page 60]
Deep in the Korengal Valley, one of the wildest and most remote stretches of eastern Afghanistan, there flourishes a lucrative trade in timber. This—not opium—is the lifeblood of the local community. In the Korengal, tribal strongmen govern the ancient trade for trees harvested in the lush ridges of the Hindu Kush. But the central Afghan government in Kabul is now attempting to seize control of the timber trade. In doing so, it has earned the enmity of local tribes, who live in near-feudal societies, almost untouched by modernity.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a local timber merchant called Haji Matin played a pivotal role in transforming the Korengal into a safe-haven for mujahedeen seeking to attack the Soviet garrison in nearby Asadabad. Following the intervention of the United States in Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the Taliban in 2001, U.S. Special Forces arrived to track down militant fighters who they believed were linked to al-Qaida. In 2005, a series of deadly insurgent attacks on U.S. forces in the valley led the Americans to conclude that the Korengal was once again becoming a militant stronghold. They decided to establish outposts in the valley and to build a road they hoped might more firmly connect the Korengal to the central government.
[End Page 61]
The outposts were presented as a way to bring security and rule-of-law to the Korengal. But the Americans also hoped that taking the fight into the Korengal would draw Taliban militants and al-Qaida fighters away from the nearby Pech Valley. The Pech links northeastern Afghanistan with the wild and violent Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan—an area of insurgent activity widely considered to be a possible base for Osama bin Laden and the remnants of al-Qaida. The Americans were hoping to induce the militants to divert resources from the Pech to the Korengal, giving U.S. forces a chance take control of the Pech and staunch the flow of arms and money that allows the insurgency to flourish in northwest Pakistan.
As a particularly isolated and independent tribe, the Korengalis weren't used to having outsiders in their valley. They speak their own particular dialect of Pashto and had managed to keep both the Taliban and the Soviets out. The tribe had adopted a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Time and again, American actions caused offense to a culture that cherishes modesty and honor. With the timber trade halted and foreign troops enforcing the policies of a distant government in Kabul, the Korengalis felt their traditional way of life was under threat. Meanwhile, their valley had effectively become a free-fire zone—for both sides. Fighters from the militant group Hizb-i-Islami entered the fight, and foreign jihadis from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia began
using the valley as a training ground. Everyone—including journalists—knew that they'd see combat in the Korengal.
The rules of engagement on the American side were simple—if you saw someone with a weapon or a radio handset, you could kill him. But the difficulty of distinguishing an insurgent from a farmer became quickly apparent to the U.S. soldiers. Local men could earn $5 by agreeing to fire a weapon against U.S. forces, and by the time the...