In Alasay Valley, the Fight Continues

by Joshua Foust on 4/8/2009 · 7 comments

Try to find Alasay.

At the tail end of March, a French-led NATO force initiated a major operation in the Alasay Valley of Kapisa Province in Afghanistan. In the initial push, dozens of “Taliban” fighters died. If you’re fond of French, Paris Match wrote a fairly riveting account of the first round of operations there.

Afghan National Army troops advance through the Alasay Valley.

Several friends of mine happened to have witnessed the past several weeks of operations there. With their permission, I’ll post some of their thoughts and observations of what is going on below the jump.

“We have a non-US NATO force in the lead as the ISAF maneuver element,” one observer noted with obvious pride, “we have the ANA holding the ground, we have the locals welcoming the troops, we have tons of meetings in Alasay, Kapisa and Kabul about stabilizing the district, we have Taliban reconciling, we have local elders telling the TB to leave, we have villagers and officials in neighboring areas noting an immediate improvement in security. This is text book clear, hold build and it will be very hard for the TB to reassert themselves if we stay.”

Curiously, outside the French press (some of which is linked to above), there is almost no coverage of what’s going on there. As Old Blue would agree, this is not a new problem. I searched the CJTF101 homepage for information about the push to retake Alasay, but there was almost nothing there. Alasay is a strategic goldmine: it lies along a primary infiltration route into and out of Pakistan, it provides easy access to Kabul in an easily defensible primary valley (there are two other valleys in Alasay District almost no Coalition Forces enter), and it is mostly populated by a Pashto-speaking ethnic minority very few people have ever studied—the Pashai.

Christian Bleuer discussed a bit about who they are in a post last Spring, though there are some addendums. I sat down with a group of Pashai elders in late January, and asked about the decades-old academic work on the Pashai. They directly contradicted Ovéson’s work: rather than being simply a linguistic group, these Pashai claim that they are their own separate ethnicity. My colleagues who have been trying to catalog and make contact with the Pashai throughout Kapisa have noted this as well. What’s more, those Pashai elders claimed that their status as merely a language was an artificial creation of King Zahir Shah, who forced them to register as Pashai-speak Safi Pashtuns—it wasn’t until Daoud, the main elder said, that they were able to gain recognition as a separate ethnicity.

A house near the Alasay District Center that was devastated by Coalition gunfire.

All of that is very interesting, and definitely worth additional research. Of much more immediate interest is what, exactly, events in Alasay represent. In early 2008, shortly after the Mujahideen Day Parade Attack in Kabul last April, the government of Afghanistan decided to reassign the ANA and ANP who had been guarding the Alasay Valley to Kabul. The result was pure disaster: during the course of 2008, Alasay changed from a valley some U.S. troops could enter at times unmolested, quickly devolved into a hornet’s nest of RPG ambushes.

Since mid-2008, there has been precious little activity in Alasay—while in 2007, the Coalition made a valiant effort to sweep Alasay and the Tagab, for months only sporadic patrols dared breach the valley’s entrance. The insurgents there had almost total freedom of movement.

No longer. A brand new COP—Combat Outpost—became operational last month, and since then the French, ANA, and U.S. mentors have seen quite a bit of combat. “There appears to be an attempt to have a coordinated follow-up on the non-K side,” one of my colleagues told me. “There have been several HA drops, a MECAP and numerous meetings so far. The ANA has two COPs a couple OPs and a supporting position dug in. It looks like they’ll stay.” In English? The Coalition seems to be focusing on the non-fighting portion of their mission: distributing Humanitarian Assistance (sometimes food, sometimes clothes, blankets, or shoes), setting up temporary free medical clinics, and holding meetings with the elders and other leadership. The Afghan National Army has set up several observation posts and combat stations, along with the logistics to support them.

French troops conduct non-kinetic operations in Alasay District, Kapisa province.

If this becomes a permanent thing, it will have an enormous effect on the insurgency in Central Afghanistan. Word on the street is that already, dozens of Taliban fighters have made the short trip to Kabul to reconcile with the government and drop out of the insurgency. It is a remarkable reversal: the Taliban literally occupied the Alasay District Center for nearly a solid year but they were driven back at the cost of one French solider. After a year’s absence, local elders are now holding almost daily shuras with the ANA and whatever western troops happen to be nearby.

So far, three weeks into the campaign to retake the Alasay Valley, things appear to be on track. That French soldier’s sacrifice will hopefully be honored by the commitment to stay, protect the people who live there, and keep pushing the Taliban and other insurgents back from the area. This is real progress, and it might even be permanent progress instead of the rather ephemeral glimmers of hope that have so far characterized the counterinsurgency so far.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Christian April 9, 2009 at 2:10 am

“They directly contradicted Ovéson’s work: rather than being simply a linguistic group, these Pashai claim that they are their own separate ethnicity. My colleagues who have been trying to catalog and make contact with the Pashai throughout Kapisa have noted this as well. What’s more, those Pashai elders claimed that their status as merely a language was an artificial creation of King Zahir Shah, who forced them to register as Pashai-speak Safi Pashtuns—it wasn’t until Daoud, the main elder said, that they were able to gain recognition as a separate ethnicity.”

Ovesen and these guys can both be correct. There are plenty of people out there that are positive their group has had a defined, conscious and uniform identity for ages, when in fact ethnologists, elites and/or governments worked to define and shape group boundaries and identities only a generation or two ago. This is not to deny anyone’s self-professed identity actually exists…

It’s quite possible that when and where Ovesen showed up, the only relevant identities were localized ones, and no encompassing macro-ethnic identity existed (perhaps even beyond one’s own valley) among Pashai/Laghmani-speakers. But the influence of government, communication, travel, trade, etc… start to change all that.

Perhaps the “Pashai”-speaking guys in the more isolated areas up in the hills will be a little confused when asked if they are Pashai? As confused as the 19th century peasant when asked if he is a Frenchman?

This is all quite standard Gellner stuff. What these guys are saying fits in quite well to the usual discussions of nationalism theory. Sorry for the clumsy rehashing of that.

Joshua Foust April 9, 2009 at 5:09 am

Oh, I agree fully. It wasn’t about whether anyone was exclusively correct — frankly, those elders had some very strange ideas about who they were and where they came from, at least if other scholars of the area and of the people there are correct. My point is that the social picture is more complex than even we who argue for its complexity often realize.

If that make sense.

There isn’t any definite hill-valley Pashai thing. The Pashai ARE the hill people. I’ve read reports that in Kunar they don’t always identify as Pashai per se, though the national shura would disagree (since it is, you know, a national shura of Pashai). But at least in Kapisa (and southern Panjshir and western Laghman), they seem quite proud of their status as ethnic Pashai.

Lory Stevens April 9, 2009 at 11:04 am

I am the public affairs officer for this area, and there has in fact been stories put out. In terms of the combat operations, the French embed French media, and therefore you have French reporting primarily. I personally put out stories on the shuras during that time period. I know that CJTF 101 is very interested in reporting on Alasay, and their websites do have pictures from the Kapisa and Parwan PRT, as well as my stories on the shuras.

Sum and Shenganek April 9, 2009 at 4:38 pm

it is mostly populated by a Pashto-speaking Pashai-speaking ethnic minority very few people have ever studied—the Pashai.

Also, following on Christian, the Pashai did self-report to Ovesen as either A) Safi or B) Tajik for months before they revealed their “tribal” names, none of which were “Pashai.” The reason was that they felt the most relevant identity category to an outsider must be their allegiance during the Bacha-i Saqao time of troubles.

Very likely they are now insistent on being a real-boy ethnicity because the way US/NATO has dealt with identities has been on the level of ethnicity; so if they were just some little group of hill Tajiks, important people like you and your colleagues would be less inclined to sit down with a group of them.

Again this is essentially how most linguistic groups become “ethnicities” as Christian said. Also, the Pashai’s status as a language was invented not by the King but by this dude.

David April 12, 2009 at 9:51 am

It’s fascinating to observe the vast gap the lies between the type informed discussion of the bases for group identity that are found here and the blather coming from the mainstream regional experts who have a willing audience among the military, our policy-makers and the broader public.

While Christian’s blog is a must-read on this subject, another splendid source is Conrad Schetter’s descriptive and proscriptive work that he and his colleagues have produced on ethnicity in Afghanistan, sadly to little apparent effect on policy.

Schetter’s “Ethnicity and the Political Reconstruction in Afghanistan,” offers a brief yet concise analysis of ethnicity’s role in Afghanistan and the problems associated with it. It explains how ‘ethnic identity’ is itself a fairly new construct on the Afghan scene.

On a different subject, Josh’s Pashai elder informants may be somewhat confused about President Daoud’s attitude towards ethnicity and ethnic identity. During his period, surnames that identified locality or ethnicity were either banned or strongly frowned upon. Having been in Afghanistan at the time, I got an earful from non-Pashtun Afghans working for the government who complained mightily about the need to drop their names linked to an ethnic group and adopt other names. Similarly, Daoud pushed more vehemently than his predecessors Pashtun language instruction and use. He put as a priority the need to abolish distinctions of language and sub-national identity such as region or ethnicity. Non-Pashtuns saw this as Daoud cynically trying to strengthen support among his Pashtun base.

It was not wasted on educated non-Pashtun Afghans that the first language for Daoud and other members of the Afghan royal family was Dari. In his public addresses to the nation, Daoud would start out with a few sentences in Pashtu before switching to Dari.

Joshua Foust April 12, 2009 at 10:13 am

David, you’re probably right about conditions under Daoud. I am not an expert on the Pashai, and I have not exhaustively studied Daoud’s reign. All I know is the scattered research specifically related to the Pashai, and that these elders — who, as leaders in a national sura have a political agenda even if we don’t know what it is — disputed that.

It’s probably worth noting that they liked talking to people who had, in their words, “done their homework.” The most common complaint I ever heard about Americans is that we ask the same questions all the time and never seem to learn (I wrote an op-ed in WPR about this). It’s not terribly hard to do with a little effort.

I think a broader discussion of the nature of identity was beyond my original scope here. But I do know that, at least from me and my colleagues, you’ll get hearty agreement that Schetter is an essential source on this topic.

Little Hoof April 12, 2009 at 10:55 am

I’m not seeing where the Pashai elders contradicted Ovesen. Ovesen was working in 1977-8 and these guys are working in 2009. Ovesen never said that the Pashai were “simply a linguistic group.” What Ovesen said was that people identified by smaller groups that we might call “tribes,” but the Pashai were being turned into an ethnicity by the state, and that in all likelihood the Pashai would probably start self-identifying as such. Which is exactly what your elders were doing.

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