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Peace Returns To Afghanistan’s Valley Of Death

U.S. soldiers fire a mortar rounds at suspected insurgent positions in the Pech River valley in Kunar Province (file photo).
U.S. soldiers fire a mortar rounds at suspected insurgent positions in the Pech River valley in Kunar Province (file photo).

PECH, Afghanistan -- Fighting was the norm in Pech, a mountain valley in eastern Afghanistan.

Accessible through a narrow road along a fast-flowing mountain river, the valley proved ideal terrain for Taliban ambushes and improvised explosive devices planted along roadsides to target Afghan and international troops.

Insurgent attacks and NATO counteroffensives and airstrikes kept the region in the headlines between 2006 and 2014, when thousands of U.S.-led NATO troops rotated through the region.

The main Pech River valley and its extensions into the Korangal and Wanat Waygal valleys were the scene of some of the fieriest fighting, making it one of the most dangerous front lines during the longest war in U.S. history. Western journalists dubbed Korangal the “valley of death.”

Now more than two years after the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan in late 2014, a tentative peace has returned to the region. Violence levels have dropped significantly, and attacks on the Afghan security forces are rare.

“We are now hoping this region will soon be called the ‘valley of peace,’ ” said Zabihullah, a resident of Pech.

He attributed the decline in violence to the departure of NATO troops, which the Taliban used to justify their attacks. “When the foreign forces were here, there was a lot of insecurity. Civilians were frequently killed in insurgent attacks and suffered because of air strikes by international forces.”

Another resident, Ziaur Rahman, recalled a period when leaving one’s home in the forested region carried a high risk of not returning.

“When the foreign forces were here, our roads were sometimes closed for hours,” he said. “There was no security, and attacks, bomb blasts, and air strikes were common. Civilians were frequently the worst victims of that violence.”

Rahman said the violence dropped significantly after local tribal leaders and clerics called out Taliban and other insurgent fighters for having no justification in attacking Afghan forces after the departure of foreign troops.

“Tribal elders, clerics, and youth united in backing the government and the Afghan security forces,” he said. “They made it clear that fighting against the Afghan security forces was not justifiable and would be treated as aggression and cruelty.”

Mawlawi Shahjahan, a cleric in Pech, said religious decrees justifying violence in the name of Islam against fellow Afghans are a great sin and a violation of Islamic teachings. The Afghan Taliban frequently employ religious teachings to justify violence against the government they claim was imposed by foreign occupation.

“When there were foreign forces here, some people used it to justify violence in the name of jihad,” he said. “We took great pains in conveying to our masses that violence against the Afghan security forces cannot be called jihad.”

Shahjahan, however, hinted at the fragility of peace in the region. “Neither side is engaging in active combat, but we need to put an end to this war for good.”

Kunar’s police chief, Abdul Habib Saidkhel, said the lull in fighting in Pech has helped in opening the nearly 70-kilometer road between provincial capital Asadabad and Parun, the capital of neighboring Nuristan Province. The road remained closed for years.

“Enemy fighters frequently established makeshift check posts to kill kidnapped government workers using the road,” he said. “Now the people tip us off whenever militants are about to launch attacks.”

For nearly four decades, Kunar, which shares a long border with Pakistan, was one of the most violent regions. It is home to small factions of Afghan Salafi fighters, the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami, various Pakistani Taliban factions, and Lashkar-e Taiba, Pakistan’s leading Salafi jihadist organization. All have attacked NATO and Afghan troops.

During the 1980s, Kunar was one of the most active front lines against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Mujahedin guerrillas overran it soon after the Red Army left Afghanistan in 1989.

Saidkhel said Pech can even serve as a model for restoring peace to the Afghan countryside.

“Things changed here because the people are on our side,” he said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Pech, Afghanistan.