How the U.S. Military Got Whipsawed by an Afghan Timber War

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John Moore

When Green Beret Capt. Jim Gant crossed the wood-and-rope footbridge across the Pech River in June 2003 and climbed into a pickup truck for the spine-compressing ride up the Korengal, he became one of the first Americans to venture any distance up the narrow valley that would soon become infamous.

U.S. intelligence collectors had first heard of the Korengal the previous summer, when the name popped up as one of the valleys to which a group of Arab militants had supposedly fled after the battle of Tora Bora, and since then, SEAL Team 6 had poked around the valley mouth on reconnaissance missions and at least one nighttime raid. Gant and his Army Special Forces A-team were visiting not for a raid but for a meet and greet, though, and to discuss a recent dispute between the Korengalis and one of the police officials they worked with.

A delegation of Korengalis met them on the south side of the Pech bridge and ushered them into waiting pickups—the only type of vehicle suited to the dirt road that curled precariously along the valley’s western slope—and up they went, into the gorge-like cut in the mountains. The Korengal’s villages were carved into the mountainside, and corn grew on lush, thin terraces. Above and below the towns stretched the forest, its dark green marred here and there by geometric shapes—evidence of the commercial logging that was the Korengal’s livelihood and would become central to America’s entanglement there and in the Pech valley, into which the Korengal fed.

The trucks stopped in “the only flat spot in that whole damn valley,” as another Green Beret on the trip put it. A group of elders had gathered in a small room, sitting on mattresses, and the A-team’s interpreter talked with them in Pashto. The Korengalis were a mountain tribe of the dwindling Pashai ethnic group, and for them Pashto was a second language. Many of the attendees talked quietly in Korengali throughout the meeting, producing background chatter that none of the visitors could understand.

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There was mutton and cold soda for everyone, but the gathering was short and tense. Gant’s boss, a Special Forces major, explained what they were doing there: The police official they’d brought along had recently had some trouble during a visit to the valley, the major said; there had been a fight. The Korengalis weren’t paying their taxes and were cutting down trees in violation of a recent ban by the Karzai government in Kabul. Everybody had to obey the police official, the major scolded, offering an off-key analogy about how he followed “the official system” when he had to pay a speeding ticket back in the United States, and they had better stop cutting down trees.

Before the Green Berets left, a younger man who had been quiet during the meeting approached Gant with a warning: Don’t come close to our valley again. If you do, we will fight.

After that, nearly every patrol that entered the Korengal turned into a gunfight—and as other Special Forces A-teams deployed after Gant’s, their captains and intelligence sergeants would listen as informants from the Pech and other parts of Kunar Province intimated that the people behind the rocket attacks on their bases and bombs aimed at their convoys were Korengalis.

Intelligence collectors are trained to regard informants’ claims with an eye toward ulterior motives, and when it came to sources from the Pech pointing fingers at the Korengal, there was a big one: the timber business. Gant hadn’t grasped it at the time, but when he visited the Korengal in 2003, he and his A-team were the first Americans of many to be used as muscle by one side in an economic war over wood. Timber barons from the Safi Pashtun tribe controlled access to the Korengal, and a few days earlier the police official—really a figure in a U.S.-backed warlord’s militia—had visited with what the Korengalis saw as an unfair price hike for the role he played in getting Korengali timber to market, resulting in a brawl. Gant’s Green Berets had brought that commander along on their trip, taken his side, and left only after their major insisted that one of the Korengali elders pose for a photo op with his opponent, shaking hands.

Wood was a way of life in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan, which were home to the largest remaining forest ecosystem in Afghanistan. Growing up, children heard stories from their fathers and grandfathers about how dark and deep the forest was, and how much deeper and darker it once had been. Wood was also a multimillion-dollar business, and the Korengal was at the heart of it.

Kunar’s forests had two layers. On the lower slopes, near most of the villages, grew leafy hardwood trees; Kunaris relied on this tier’s small evergreen oaks and birches for everything from firewood to toothbrush twigs. Several thousand feet higher, hidden from the valley floor, stood the second layer: forests of conifers with bright green needles and drooping branches. Wide spaces separated the trunks of the pines, cedars, firs, spruces, and junipers that grew in this layer, but around the forest’s edge and in the places where the trees were oldest and largest, the upper branches meshed together into a canopy, under which lived everything from porcupines, musk deer, and chattering parakeets to jackals, monkeys, and the occasional leopard.

Kunaris called the conifers nakhtar. An East India Company botanist who visited the Pech in 1840 wrote admiringly that a nakhtar was “a large tree, seventy to eighty feet high: one of average size measured fourteen feet in girth, four feet from the base,” its lower branches often used by locals for torches. A century and a half later, the forests had shrunk, but high in the Korengal and a few other side valleys like the Watapur there were still conifer forests so thick that people called them jungles. American soldiers who made it up to these areas tended to be shocked at first that such places—which reminded some of the Pacific Northwest, others of the forest moon from Return of the Jedi—could exist in Afghanistan.

In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development would belatedly lend a Yale-trained forester named Harry Bader to the military to study Kunar’s timber trade. He was fascinated by the wild woods he found in Kunar and by villagers’ relationship with them. “The forest is as important to some of these communities now as it was two thousand years ago, and that’s not hyperbole,” Bader told me. In recent decades, wood had become more important than ever—especially the Himalayan or deodar cedars that made up 15 to 20 percent of the conifer forest.

Light, strong, aromatic, and resistant to rot and insects, deodar cedar had always been used for construction in Kunar, but as Bader learned, the jihad of the 1980s had turned the cedar trade into an international business. Carried across the border to Pakistan by donkeys and then shipped across the Indian Ocean from Karachi, cedar from Kunar came to be prized by pious, ultra-wealthy Arabs of the Persian Gulf who were backing the jihad financially. “In the Gulf states, it was called jihad wood,” Bader found. “You’d want the cabinetry in your mansion in Dubai done in this cedar, because you would be supporting the mujahidin.”

With some of Kunar’s best cedar reserves, the Korengal went all in on logging starting in the late 1980s, and by the time of the September 11 attacks, the business had made the leading Korengali families rich. In answer to concerns about deforestation raised by foreign environmental organizations like the UN Environment Programme and by his own finance minister, a U.S.-educated technocrat and future president named Ashraf Ghani, Hamid Karzai had issued a decree in 2002 banning logging in Afghanistan altogether.

Years later, it would become clear that reports of deforestation in Kunar—including an influential UN study—were alarmist and seriously flawed.[*] In 2010, Bader would often take a Black Hawk up to sites where there wasn’t supposed to be so much as a twig left and find dense stands of trees that clearly had not been cut since the time of the East India Company botanist’s visit 170 years earlier. But by then, the damage of Karzai’s timber ban was done. “The ban criminalized an activity that everyone had to participate in to live,” Bader explained. “Everyone was always going to defy it. So it made everyone vulnerable to arrest; corrupt government officials could send anyone to prison who crossed them.”

In the Korengal, that dynamic altered the commercial balance between the Korengalis and the Safi Pashtun timber barons who profited off them, and it drew the U.S. military into a conflict over timber that it did not understand. Far from stopping logging in the Korengal, the ban gave the very Safi strongmen who acted as middlemen in the trade a pretext to intervene in it and extort ever-higher levies for wood’s safe passage. The Korengalis kept cutting trees, now illegally, which gave their business partners the pretext to arrest or attack them, and the strongmen-cum-officials kept buying, transporting, and selling the timber because the ban’s vague language only explicitly forbade the cutting of trees, not the resulting commerce.

As pressure mounted on the Korengal, the council that governed the valley’s logging operations turned to the Taliban for help. The Korengal’s most prominent and respected elder had had ties with the Taliban government before September 11; he became the valley’s liaison to Taliban officials in Pakistan, and soon Taliban fighters were arriving, bringing weapons and helping local men stage attacks to keep away competitors and any Americans who accompanied them. In return, the Korengalis paid the Taliban a cut, and Taliban fighters were able to use the Korengal as a training ground and base area—their main foothold in a province where they had been weak before September 11.

When a new complement of Green Berets replaced Gant and his men in Kunar in the fall of 2003 and moved into a base in the Pech full time, the handover between the teams was so quick that there was no time to discuss the brief visit to the Korengal back in June. Gant didn’t understand the Korengalis’ evolving dance with the Taliban that he’d played a role in, and his replacement, a Utah National Guard captain named Ron Fry, didn’t either—but Fry intuitively grasped that what was going on in the Korengal was an economic affair, motivated by the Korengalis’ desire to preserve their now-illegal wealth,

“The Korengalis weren’t coming out and fucking with us,” Fry remembered. “It didn’t make sense for us to go in there just to get shot at. So we made the decision not to go kick a hornet’s nest.”

The A-team that followed Fry’s—and the ever-larger Marine and Army infantry units after that, which would begin to build outposts in the Korengal in 2006 and fight there every day—would take a different attitude.

It wasn’t until early 2011, when the U.S. military had pulled out of the Korengal after losing more than 40 men there over the years and was on its way out of the Pech as well, that deforestation would actually hit Kunar’s conifer forests. For weeks that winter as the 101st Airborne troops in the Pech packed up their equipment and flew out of their bases, helicopter overflights spotted piles of freshly cut lumber and conspicuously new construction in valleys adjacent to the Korengal. Taliban commanders, informants explained, were building local support by delivering gifts of freshly cut pine, fir, and spruce to villages in the mountains above the Pech and in protected side valleys like the Shuryak.

The irony of this development was apparent only in retrospect. After taking a drubbing in 2010 in its poppy-growing southern heartland thanks to President Barack Obama’s surge, the Taliban needed money, and orders had arrived in Kunar for chainsaw teams to liquidate as much timber as possible. While the cedar went to Pakistan to be sold, less valuable types of wood were being distributed to build goodwill as Taliban commanders prepared to consolidate control. Only now, as American troops were leaving, were the Taliban actually doing to Kunar’s timber reserves what outsiders had believed them to be doing back in 2002 and 2003—the misunderstanding responsible for the very timber ban that had wound up backfiring and helping fuel the insurgency there.

[*] Unable to visit Kunar to see firsthand how cedar was logged, the UN Environment Programme team relied on low-resolution satellite imagery, and when a Wildlife Conservation Society team tried in 2006 to replicate the UNEP results with the same imagery, it couldn’t. Later studies, including Bader’s, would find that the timber barons actually avoided the environmentally dangerous practice of clear-cutting.

From the book THE HARDEST PLACE: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan. Copyright © 2021 by Wesley Morgan. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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