Revisiting the Korengal Highlights Impotence of Policy Review

by Joshua Foust on 5/15/2009 · 6 comments

It’s worth keeping a long memory in Afghanistan. This isn’t some strange assertion that the British razing of the Kabul bazaar in 1842 still matters, but rather an entreaty to keep in mind that the U.S. has been meddling in Afghan communities for eight years. That’s two presidential terms worth of political and social baggage, almost none of which is recorded reliably and precisely zero of it is maintained in a centrally-located space.

In the Korengal Valley—a uniquely violent space in Afghanistan that has seen near-constant combat and stalemate since 2005 (remember those Seals who were killed en masse in 2005? There is still combat right there)—this can be an especially useful exercise. Even in the past year, the Valley has seen a rather remarkable amount of media attention, which is remarkable if only for how little it revealed of the real issues underlying much of the fighting.

For example, remember David Kilcullen starting 2008’s “roads=security” meme-fest? I mocked him at the time for some of the claims he made, but let’s look at his actual field notes, which he claims cover periods of time in 2006.

As one example:

I last worked this area in summer and fall of 2006, supporting General Karl Eikenberry… Since my last visit, the area has seen a remarkable turn-around in security, largely the result of a consistent U.S. strategy of partnering with local communities to separate the insurgents from the people, bring tangible benefits of governance and development to the population, and help the population choose (elect) their own local leaders. Road-building has been a key part of this effort.

“The PRT’s main project at present is the opening up of the Korengal Valley, to assist in clearing out a former major stronghold of the enemy, and to bring development and governance to the area. The main push is centered on driving a paved road through the valley to allow forces to secure the villages, driving the enemy up into the hills…and affording freedom of action to civilian agencies so that they can work with the people to extend governance and development…

The road provides an alternative works project to prevent people joining the Taliban, the improved ease of movement makes business easier and transportation faster and cheaper, and thus spurs economic growth, and the graded black-top road allows friendly troops to move much more easily and quickly than before, along the valley floor, helping secure population centers and drive the enemy up into the hills where they are separated from the population – allowing us to target them more easily and with less risk of collateral damage, and allowing political, intelligence, aid, governance, education and development work to proceed with less risk. Road building is not a panacea, but the way this PRT and the local maneuver units are approaching this project is definitely a best practice”.

It’s probably a safe bet that Kilcullen was badly overstating the nature of the progess in the Korengal. It may be more difficult for the insurgents themselves to move around the area, but it certainly hasn’t resulted in any less fighting. In fact, according to statistics assembled by the Long War Journal, the violence in Kunar had increased in the year before Kilcullen’s visit. Subsequent reporting by CJ Chivers indicates that up and down the Kunar River Valley area, the fighting and problems facing the people there are actually worse than they were in 2006.

In the Korengal area in particular, there are a few issues at play. One, is a misunderstanding of the fight. Most of the fighting doesn’t seem to actually be by Taliban/Haqqani/HiG fighters per se, but by locals angry at what they see as outside influence in their affairs. This anger seems to be driven by fear that an official government presence will deprive the locals of income from illegal mineral and timber extraction (illegal because Kabul lacks the institutions to lease out the natural resources it claims to own). Furthermore, many villagers seem to fear the construction of Kilcullen’s pretty paved roads because they worry it will make it easier for the resource mafias to come and steal the natural resources (timber, mostly) Kabul won’t let them harvest themselves.

That isn’t to argue that the problem is purely economic. In some nearby valleys, Schuyler Jones documented extensively how petty and violent some inter-communal conflicts can be—conflicts which are ripe for exploitation by the militants but whose foundation is not ultimately militant Islam.

The point in this isn’t to rail on Kilcullen—he’s not a dishonest man, merely a convenient and high-profile example to choose given his latest book—but rather to highlight that the way in which the West seems to gather information about these areas to then craft policy is fundamentally broken. Somewhere along the way the information about these conflicts is not making it “up the chain” and being kept somewhere. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a surprise that after four years the same part of Kunar is still getting the same treatment as it becomes steadily more and more violent.

(Photo courtesy Picasa user Alberto)

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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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Farhad May 15, 2009 at 6:26 pm

In the days of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901), the creator of the modern Afghan nation, the entire populace of the Korengal Valley would have been forcefully relocated to another part of Afghanistan– say Farah or Nimroz province. And another set of people from another province would be moved into this valley; these new people would be loyal to the government and not cause trouble.

After all, Amir Abdur Rahman’s slogan was “Khoda dad dawlat-e Afghanistan” (“God Granted the Government of Afghanistan”), and how can you argue with that?

Unfortunately you may have to resort to such tactics to pacify this area. It was the only means of building Afghanistan into a modern nation state.

The other less harsh approach is to have a non-corrupt Afghan government establish an agreement with the populace in distributing the natural resources in this region.

But realistically when can this option happen when the current Afghan government is weak, corrupt and lacks resources?

Joshua Foust May 16, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Well, I mean Abdur Rahman was great and all (he turned Kafiristan Muslim, after all), but I don’t think ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, and the systematic taking of hostages to hold in Paghman until the Army conscripted all the fighting-age boys can really hack it right now. The International Community went into apoplexia over a religiously-biased law that could have possibly allowed marital rape. How would they handle this, should the Kabul government ever try it?

Cliff May 18, 2009 at 3:15 am

That is actually what happened. The Korengal was ‘repopulated’ a little over 100 years ago when Islam moved into the Hindu Kush area.

CJ Chives is actually wrong. The Pesh, which the Korengal is a tributary too, is actually much safe then a few years ago and development and government influence is being pushed further west. The Korengal may still be a very dangerous place but the severity of the firefights has dropped off.

The author is correct that the main problem is the lack of a governmental solution to the timber trade. Development and sustainable employment are key. Yet while these may be keys to the Korengal, the fighting is still financed by HIG and other elements.

David M May 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/18/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Farhad May 18, 2009 at 6:00 pm

@ Joshua
The approach that Amir Abdur Rahman took in shaping the modern state of Afghanistan in today’s world, would raise a lot of questions in terms of human rights abuses.

However, today most Afghans, in specific the older generation that have a more keen understanding of modern Afghan history, admit they favor the last Amir’s tactics, and they would rather have someone like him run Afghanistan today, with an iron fist to stamp out all the ills that is plaguing the nation (corruptions, drug production, drug dealers, local warlords, etc).

Aside from that, they also favor him because he was a nationalist and first looked for the interest of the entire Afghan nation and his desire for Afghanistan to be a state that can stand on its own feet one day.

@ Cliff
Thanks for the clarifications. So if the fighting against the US and Afghan forces is known to be financed by HIG, then shouldn’t the US government direct even more pressure on the Pakistani government/army to go after HIG?

Or maybe they have but we just don’t know about it. Because right now the only news we read is Pakistani forces are in Swat and no word on the fight against HIG, which is reported to be in Waziristan, and the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta.

Last I read was that the Afghan government was trying to negotiate with HIG, which I know most regular Afghan would reject because of the awful acts that HIG has taken on Afghans throughout the years– mainly the rocketing on Kabul in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Old Blue May 21, 2009 at 5:10 am

The general sense that I got from the HiG was that they were always on the ragged edge of laying down their arms to seek a purely political role… that they dabbled in politics and dangled the disarmament idea to gain a better deal for themselves.

The governor of Kapisa was “former” HiG. He brought forth a “candidate” for ANP Chief of Tag Ab who was “former” HiG as well. It went over like a lead balloon, but that’s what happened.

The Afghan government’s inability to manage the harvesting of natural resources has caused many problems in Nuristan, as well. This includes the fact that the gem trade, being illegal, funds illegal activities. “Taliban” in Nuristan are not the Pashtun Taliban… the Nuristanis hold the Pashtuns in great suspicion and have been pushing back against Pashtun incursions into Nuristani areas, where they are unwelcome squatters.

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