Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

AAN reads: Junger’s ‘War’

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

When I read one of the first reportages coming out from the Korengal, not by Sebastian Junger, in early 2008*, my first association was Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’. Later, the first video clips came out that even aggravated this impression. Now the full book is out, and it is as powerful as Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’ or Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ (All Quiet on the Western Front) – elementary, extremely well written, a page-turner, although you want to fire it into a corner all once in a while. But it is not a work of fiction, it is documentary. A review by AAN’s Thomas Ruttig.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, the American journalist Sebastian Junger and the British photographer Tim Hetherington embedded themselves five times with a US Marines unit in Kunar’s extremely inaccessible, and hostile, Korengal valley. It belongs to a brigade with a long tradition, the 173rd Airborne, that fought in WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and, before Korengal, in Zabul province (which Junger puts to ‘central’ Afghanistan, one of his very few glitches**).
Junger and Hetherington wanted to show how ‘war’ actually feels, why people go to it and what it does to them. This definitely worked. Out came a product that is brilliant literature, exploring elementary feelings of human beings – who are trained for this, mind you, and how perfectly scientifically Junger also describes – in extreme situations. The book is divided into three chapters with simple heading: fear, killing, love – a surprising combination. Not least, Junger also describes what war does to him.

I was, of course, also interested in the context. I wanted to find out what Junger tells us about the war in Kunar. Although he writes that this time he was ‘interested in the Americans’, and the US soldiers he is living with ‘generally leave the big picture to others’, he of course needs to describe the setting, the geographical and ‘human’ terrain, if you will. So you have to piece together the run-up to the deployment of the unit he went with a bit, but also relatively short these passages throw a stark light on it.

The Korengal is a southern tributary to Pech River (which flows into the Kunar River, further into Kabul River and finally the Indus at Attock in Pakistan). The valley is six miles long and six miles wide – ‘about half the size of Staten Island’ -, densely forested with holly oaks (tseray, in Pashto) and, higher up, cedars and inhabited by, now, ‘out-of-work timber cutters’. As the soldiers proudly state, ‘the Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn’t dare go in there at all’. That’s exactly the question: Why go there, into this extremely inaccessible and not very strategic area?

The valley is inhabited by the Korengali, a mix of Pashai who migrated there from further north, the Dara-ye Nur, some 100 years ago, and Gurbuz-Safi Pashtuns. But they do not speak Pashtu, so the Pashai seem to be the stronger element. They are of the Salafi creed and known to be not very welcoming to strangers because of their isolation. (The main Pashai group in Nangrahar is linked to the former Northern Alliance/Shura-ye Nazarcommander Hazrat Ali whose men fought with US and British Special Forces in Tora Bora, possibly had a role in OBL’s escape but nevertheless became police chief of Nangrahar later; he actually is from Laghman and was elected an MP in 2005 and 2010 now.)

Junger tells us that the unit’s task was to cut off infiltration routes for fighters and weapons (the soldiers call them ‘ratlines’) from Pakistan ‘along the Pech and Kunar valleys’ to Kabul, and that Arab and Pakistani fighters as well as HIG groups are active in the area. This overstates the Korengal’s importance – and Junger himself puts this back into proportion, but only at the end of the book where he calls the valley a ‘dead-end […] used as a refuge and a staging area for attacks on the Pech’ [my emphasis]. I.e., the Korengal is rather peripheral and only of local importance for the insurgents. There must be other reasons for the US presence here.

What surprised me at the same time is that even the commander and his soldiers are surprised about the Korengal terrain; they had expected that it would be like Zabul. Are they not prepared for the area they are to be deployed in?

It doesn’t become a hundred per cent clear who started the war in the Korengal, and already this is an enlightening consequence. The first US Special Forces ‘that came through the area in early 2002’ (maybe hunting local Salafi commanders***, that’s not explained in the book) and they were allied with ‘timber traders from a northern faction of the [Pashtun] Safi tribe’. The Americans learned that the head of the Korengal timber cutters, a certain Haji Matin, had ‘allied himself with an Egyptian named Abu Ikhlas****, who had fought jihad against the Russians in that area during the 1980s and wound up marrying a local woman. It wasn’t known for sure that Ikhlas was affiliated with Al Qaida’. The Americans bombed Haji Matin’s house and ‘killed several members of his family’.

If one is aware that there has been a long rivalry between Safi and Pashai groups (with the Taleban playing the sides as well), linked to different question, about the control over the local timber smuggling to Pakistan, it can be assumed that the source lies in the political economy of the area, and in the not singular fact that the Americans chose one side of the conflict parties (see the initial situation for the famous ‘one tribe at a time’ strategy, an earlier AAN guest blog about this here).

In June 2005, the situation escalated further. An insurgent commander called Ahmad Shah***** killed three locals as informers for the Americans and the US forces sent in the Navy SEALS. But they were trapped, the helicopters of a rescue commando team shot down and everyone on board killed (the first famous incident of that kind), Ahmad Shah’s men went away with American guns, night vision goggles, GPS devices ‘and a military laptop’ and a bomb attack on a compound that ‘apparently missed’ him ‘killed seventeen civilians […], including women and children’. This was a major loss and defeat (read one contemporary report here).

‘Over the next twelve months American firebases were pushed deeper into the Pech River Valley and […] into the Korengal itself. […] The valley had enormous symbolic meaning because of the loss of nineteen American commandos there, and some soldiers suspected that their presence in the valley was the U.S. military’s way of punishing locals for what had happened […]. For both sides, the battle for the Korengal developed a logic of its own that sucked in more and more resources and lives until neither side could afford to walk away.’

At one point, Junger tells us that the area around the Korengal (I assumed this includes the Pech valley, but even if it included the whole of Kunar it still sounds so much out of proportion) was the target of 70 per cent of all bombs that were dropped by the Americans in their whole Afghan war. (This also doesn’t bode well for Wardak’s Seyyedabad district where another Special Forces helicopter was shot down recently (read a report about this incident here).

This went on and on. First, already during Junger’s stay, ‘Third Platoon soldiers in the Northern end of the valley shot into a truck full of young men who had refused to stop at a checkpoint, killing several. The soldiers said they thought they were about to be attacked.’ Later on, during a search operation for a weapons cache in Yakha China village, the unit commander calls in air support against a compound. Later, village elder lead the soldiers there were ‘three children with blackened faces and a woman [lie] stunned and mute on the floor. Five corpses lie on wooden pallets covered by white cloth outside the house, all casualties from the airstrike the night before’. The commander offer apologies and compensation, another officer holds a speech ‘delivered with the force of conviction’ that the Americans came to them ‘with direction from the Afghan government’ that, as Junger says elsewhere, never had any representative even visiting this area. The locals don’t find the speech convincing and ‘the elders declare jihad against every American in the valley’.

But the real mindblower comes on page 170:

‘[I]t was hard not to wonder whether the men themselves – not the American and Taliban commanders but the actual guys behind the guns – couldn’t somehow sit down together and work this out.’

Meanwhile, the US forces have left their permanent positions in the Korengal and the wider Pech region. The Washington Post quoted a retired US army officer saying:

‘”In retrospect, the attempt to extend the state’s authority into the Pech was folly,” said [Douglas] Ollivant, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “Kabul’s nascent government, struggling with corruption and basic competence, will not be able to administer the Pech for a generation.”’

The withdrawal ended early this year. The Taleban moved into some of the former US positions, declared victory and the area became part of what AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini called an ‘insurgency corridor in the making’ reaching from the Pakistani border to the northeast of Kabul (read his blog here).

Then, in early August, US media reported that US will be back in the Pech region soon, in order to ‘set the conditions for a transition that will support the Afghan army and Afghan police in providing security’ (read the article here).

Korengal, it seems, is just another shard in Afghanistan’s broken mirror that somehow reflects the full picture.

* * *

Actually, there are two books on the Korengal: Photographer Tim Hetherington published his photographs separately. Hetherington was killed while covering Libya on 20 April this year.Sebastian Junger, War, London: Fourth Estate, 2011 (paperback).Tim Hetherington, Infidel, London: Chris Boot Ltd, 2010.

And there is the documentary film by Junger and Hetherington, edited by Michael Levine, that was nominated for the Oscar and won the Jury price at the Sundance festival: Restrepo.

(*) Elizabeth Rubin, ‘Battle Company Is Out There’, New York Times Magazine, 24 February 2008, read it here. This was followed by some reportages by C.J. Chivers, also in the New York Times, read one of them (20 April 2009) here.

(**) The other one is a village in the Korengal that plays quite a role in the book, he calls Yaka China, the ‘Cold Waterfall’. Actually, it is Yakha China, but English speakers have a problem with ‘kh’. So, they often talk about Kowst when they mean Khost etc. (In Pashtu and Dari it can make quite a difference, see an earlier blog of mine here for example)

(***) That was the time before and during the Emergency Loya Jirga. The leader of the Kunar Salafi Haji Rohullah and his deputy Haji Hayatullah participated in this gathering, but Rohullah was arrested briefly afterwards (in August or September 2002) for alleged Taleban contacts. He is still held in Guantanamo (read more about the Salafi in an earlier blog here).

Before, there also was an inner-Korengali conflict when the community split into two groups, one that supported Karzai and another one that declared jihad against the Americans. The leader of the pro-Karzai group was killed with a number of family members. But one faction of the Salafi party, Jama’at Da’wa Al-Sunnat of Afghanistan, under the leadership of Maulawi Same’ullah Najibi, was still registered in Kabul officially by 2010 before a re-registration for all parties was ordered by parliament; after that, it did not appeared on the official parties list anymore.
How Nuristani (and possibly also some Pashai) became Salafi is told by Max Klimburg, an Austrian expert on the region in an article from 2008:

‘Islam is on the rise also in Nuristan, where one finds nowadays an ever increasing number of haji, for the most part unemployed, and mullahs educated in different madrassas in Pakistan. The northern valleys even have gone through a period of ‘re-Islamisation’, as they were converted to Wahhabism. Wahhabi and other religious village schools provide some education, and several of the local mullahs now pride themselves on having completed higher religious studies in Saudi Arabia. In most parts of present-day Nuristan, music and dance, once greatly cherished and widely performed, have virtually disappeared, the victims of Sunni or Wahhabi fundamentalism.’ (quoted after the Ghosts of Alexander blog here).

David B. Edwards, in his book Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad (2002) links the ‘Salafisation’ in this area with the influx of Arab volunteers in the resistance against the Soviets. Many of them joined a commander from the Pech Valley who had left Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami and set up a base in Bajaur.(****) According to other sources, Abu Ikhlas al-Misri has been the commander of local al-Qaida forces later from 2008 onwards, until he was captured by US Special Forces last December (see here; another source put him to Logar in 2005, see here)(*****) Ahmad Shah, with the additional name Dara-ye Nuri (he is from Dara-ye Nur district in Nangrahar) and a.k.a ‘Mulla’ or ‘Qari Ismail’, was one of the most influential insurgency leaders in the Eastern region and the leader of the Bara bin Malek Front, an autonomous Salafi group. He was mainly active in Kunar but also in Nangrahar, in his home district, Kama and Khewa. In April 2008, he was reported killed in a shootout in Pakistan (read a report here).


Sebastian Junger