PECH DARA, Afghanistan – A remote mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan was once dubbed the Valley of Death for witnessing some of the fiercest fighting during four decades of war in the country.
But nearly five years after the departure of international troops from Kunar Province, the restive Pech Valley, named after its fast-flowing whitewater river, is peaceful. Despite occasional insurgent attacks, government forces appear to be firmly in control of the picturesque forested region.
“When the international forces were here, there was a lot of fighting,” Qari Ziaur Rahman, a local resident, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
He said the violence was nonstop. “Missiles were frequently falling on civilian homes, and there were bomb blasts. It was impossible for those working for the government to stay alive,” he recalled.
Hamdullah, another resident who like many Afghans goes by one name only, says the violence prompted locals to dub it “as da marg dara” or the Valley of Death in the Pashto language.
The Americans, however, gave the same name to Korangal, one of the valleys in the region, because a U.S. military outpost there was targeted in constant insurgent attacks. Many leading U.S. newspapers and magazines wrote about Korangal. Television crews and documentary filmmakers also covered the fighting there.
Korangal was one of five outposts manned by U.S. and NATO forces. They endured countless attacks including ambushes, blasts from improvised explosive devices, and suicide attacks by the Taliban and smaller insurgent factions.
But today’s Pech Dara is a different place.
Haji Gul Hakim, a local tribal leader, recalls the day in 2014 when NATO troops left the region by handing over security and combat responsibilities to the Afghan forces.
“Out tribal leaders and clerics went to the Taliban and told them that the Afghan Army and police in the region are our children and are tasked with guarding our homeland,” he said of the long and heated deliberations. “So, if the Taliban are going to attack them, then all of us will fight against the insurgents.”
Hakim says that peace gradually returned to Pech Valley after local unity made it clear to the insurgents that their violence was not welcome.
In the subsequent years, local leaders oversaw concerted efforts to reconcile local Taliban members. Their efforts also reopened the road connecting Kunar’s capital, Asadabad, to the neighboring province of Nuristan.
The districts of Watapur, Dara-e Pech (locally called Manogai) and Chapa Dara collectively constitute Pech Dara, where most of the estimated 100,000 residents are members of the Pashtun Safi tribe. It is made up of one major river valley and several small contributing valleys. In the 1980s, Pech Dara proved one of the toughest spots for the Soviet Red Army, whose numerous offensives failed to subdue the Safis.
Kunar Governor Abdul Satar Mirzakwal says that exhaustion and the broad realization that the war in Afghanistan now serves no purpose have prompted many insurgents to renounce violence.
“They have recognized that it is war without an end that only entails killing one’s brothers,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “There is nothing here that can justify invoking Islam to fight. We have learned a major lesson from four decades of fighting.”
It was not immediately possible to reach the Taliban or other insurgents for comment in Pech Dara.
But the region’s newfound peace is ultimately tied to whether Afghans can find a way to reconcile after an imminent peace agreement. The current effort will see the departure of U.S. troops in return for the Taliban’s antiterrorism guarantees, their peace talks with Afghan society, and a lasting cease-fire.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Pech Dara, Afghanistan.