Know Your Enemy

11.15.14 11:55 AM ET

Heart of Darkness: Into Afghanistan’s Taliban Valley

Untouched by Western journalists except in the presence of American troops, Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley was once the most violent part of the Afghan War.

Several years ago I was contacted out of the blue by Matt Trevithick and Daniel Seckman, who said that they lived in Kabul and were trying to figure out how to penetrate an area of Afghanistan I knew well: The Korengal Valley, in a remote part of Kunar Province. The Korengal was the scene of an enormous amount of combat when I was there with American forces in 2007-08, and after they pulled out, the Taliban had completely taken over. Being there with a company of American infantry was dangerous enough; going there on your own seemed like straight-up suicide.

We arranged to meet in New York when they passed through, and we settled on a basement coffee place in Manhattan, somewhere in Tribeca. For some reason I was late, and I found myself running full-tilt down Varick Street to meet a couple of men who I thought had to either be spooks or simply insane. I couldn’t think of any other plausible explanation for what they were trying to do.

They were neither. For an hour over coffee they explained how they would drive to Jalalabad and then up the incredibly beautiful Kunar Valley, and then west along the Pech River to the mouth of the Korengal. They had long beards and dressed like locals, and trip after trip they managed to slip through the checkpoints and the danger spots without any trouble. I was in plenty of combat in that area, and I was blown up on the road, but what I had done with US forces seemed like child’s play compared to what they were doing. They were alone and unarmed in hostile territory without even having the reassurance of radio communications. If Taliban fighters stopped them on the road they were as good as dead.

Matt and Daniel’s dedication and courage allowed them to acquire an incredibly deep knowledge of Afghan society and politics. Frankly, I have never heard anyone else speak with such insight into Afghan affairs, post-US surge. Over 2,200 American soldiers died in Afghanistan, and we poured hundreds of billions of dollars into its economy and infrastructure. We have deeply transformed Afghan society—mostly for the better in my opinion—but at great cost to our country and to theirs. Now we are pulling out, and no one knows what will happen next. Matt and Daniel come awfully close, however, to having a pretty good guess at what the next few years will bring. We are all very lucky to have them reporting back to us in this fashion.

—Sebastian Junger, Author of War and director of Restrepo and Korengal

I

Hajji Zalwar Khan motions for us to get in the back of the truck while he climbs in front. Our driver glances at us in the rearview mirror and nods before dropping the faded red Toyota Hilux into first gear. We ease past Asadabad’s town square, little more than an overbuilt mosque, a collection of low-rise buildings, and a two-story poster of a smiling Hamid Karzai waving to his people. Pakistan is less than ten miles to our right, the Pech Valley immediately to our left. The Korengal Valley awaits.

The phone call came two days ago. Our contact muttered a simple, “It’s been agreed.” For a year we have been in discussions with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province that ultimately included the shadow Taliban governor, seeking permission to enter the infamous Korengal Valley. These are the same Taliban fighters known to U.S. audiences from the documentary Restrepo and the film Lone Survivor. More American blood has been spilled and more American troops have died in the Korengal Valley during the last 13 years than in perhaps any other part of the country. It is known to troops as “the valley of death” and given the carnage that the U.S. experienced there, the nickname is deservedly accurate. We’re the first Westerners to be given permission to enter in more than three decades.

Our escort, Hajji Zalwar Khan, is the chief elder in charge of the valley council. He wears his characteristic white shalwar kameez with a tattered gray waistcoat. He has a long white beard and a massive angular nose that could be the work of Gutzon Borglum. His pants are cut short, high above his ankles, a style cue that in this region conveys his status as an ultra-conservative Muslim. In his pocket are prayer beads, which he twirls through his fingers when he speaks about Islam and jihad, the Taliban and the Americans.

He can’t read or write, wears his metallic wrist watch upside down, and carries a scored twig to brush his teeth. The yellow stains under his arms suggest he hasn’t washed his clothes recently, if ever. Yet over the last decade, Zalwar Khan has served as a pendulum between two opposing forces—the Taliban and the Americans—fighting to control an otherwise obscure valley in a forgotten province. He was present at every meeting the Americans hosted with tribal elders during much of the last decade, when the U.S. military sought and failed to impose control over the Korengal. He listened to well-intentioned, ultimately exasperated American commanders talk ad nauseam about money, jobs and development in a restive area most Afghans consider forsaken and useless.

Our driver is a doctor who was held in detention for three years by U.S. forces on charges of aiding the Taliban. He has sunken eyes and a narrow black beard speckled with gray. He downshifts as we leave Asadabad, the provincial capital of Kunar, steering around a fresh IED crater in the road that wasn’t there the last time we came through two weeks ago. Given that this trip was authorized by the shadow governor and Zalwar Khan is escorting us, the likelihood of getting blown up or ambushed seems nonexistent. But almost every time we’ve entered the valley during the past year, we’ve found ourselves near firefights of varying intensity, and on one occasion, heard the buzz of a drone overhead. We have told only two confidants about our plans. We try to forget about the possibility of an attack.

Houses of stone and wood pass by the truck’s windows as the morning sun begins to pour in over the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains into the Pech Valley, which the Korengal Valley bisects. Every so often, a vehicle passes in the opposite direction. Most drivers using this road are headed to and from a handful of capillary valleys in the Pech. Besides the Korengal, there are the Shuryek and Watapur valleys. The former was the site of Operation Red Wings, the ill-fated mission in which 19 U.S. service members died in 2005 that became the basis of “Lone Survivor.” Watapur, meanwhile, appears comatose at the moment, but it’s home to an al Qaeda detachment that is regularly bombarded with Hellfire missiles. On one trip into the Pech Valley last summer, Afghan special forces on patrol calmly waved us over to the side of the road behind a house as they fanned out to attack several Arabs assaulting a small base 100 meters away.

We are here because, simply put, Kunar province, and the Korengal, is as close to the front lines as can be found in an asymmetrical war without boundaries. As an extreme test of the country’s security forces and their ability to protect the country, this province can tell us much more about the country’s future than conditions elsewhere—including Kabul, which, with its relative modernity, universities, internet and women’s rights conferences, seems a world away.

Between the two of us, we’ve traveled by road to each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. We’ve spent much of the last decade traveling across the country’s mountainous eastern region, where the focus of U.S. military operations has shifted, away from the open plains in the south. In our travels, the goal was to find the area that provided a glimpse of the state of this much theorized but ultimately inscrutable conflict—and may act as a bellwether of things to come. And in talking with elders associated with the Taliban everywhere possible, one place stood out: Kunar. Every single actor in this conflict has a presence in this often forgotten province, making it the ideal test case for the future of the country. We sought out the one man who could safely guide us in and out of the Korengal Valley: Zalwar Khan.

II

Afghanistan is a vastly different country than it was in 2008, when the Western headlines discussed American soldiers fighting a futile war to protect a failed state. The dire fatalism that dominated the discourse then is gone, replaced largely with a practiced apathy.

The surge, announced what feels like a lifetime ago with the approving nods of celebrity generals like Petraeus and McChrystal, has receded. From a peak of more than 130,000 U.S. troops, less than 35,000 remain, most of whom will be gone by the year’s end. The private security contractors and their for-profit development cousins are shuttering offices and laying off staff, while the U.S. Embassy throws just enough money at the usual women’s conferences and capacity building efforts to avoid the appearance of looking like they too don’t care. The main problem facing Western governments here is the fate of their equipment: what to bring home, what to scrap. The West is packing up, victorious in battle but defeated in war. After more than 12 years of combat and more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers killed, the message is writ large: Let Afghanistan fend for itself.

Matt Trevithick

Or at least that’s the narrative passed along by Western journalists. While claiming to speak with authority about the entire nation, their view is largely restricted to Kabul, the country’s capital and the place from which the overwhelming number of news stories are filed. And yet, even while seldom leaving the capital, they offer a perspective on the city that tilts toward distortion. Their stories—often implicitly, sometimes explicitly—suggest that the country’s only possible destination is the apocalypse. They remain relentless in peddling a prognosis of doom.

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In their defense, Kabul can still be dangerous. In January, an attack on a Lebanese cafe popular with expats left 21 people dead. Matt narrowly missed becoming a statistic during a Taliban attack on a hotel in March and found himself running through hallways as the sound of bullets and screams echoed throughout the building, and both of us felt the rattling blast of twin car bombs attacking a building a block from our offices a few days later. Arms and munitions are regularly intercepted going into the city by local security forces; the threat of the occasional attack remains real. But to say the capital teeters on the verge of collapse is both melodramatic and misleading.

As we know from the invitations that show up in our email, the expats who remain in Kabul still debate which party to attend first on weekends. Practically every city block is under construction. The mayor in speech after speech talks about more development projects designed to bring more electricity, more water, and more paved roads. Perhaps the strongest proof of the city’s safety? The fact that all Western reporters covering the war are based there. The country’s growth continues at levels never before seen in its history, even if they’ve fallen from the stratospheric and wildly unsustainable surge-induced highs a few years prior. And despite the better part of a decade of intense Taliban effort, the new governmental system created in 2001 is very likely to survive into the next decade and beyond.

Yet you won’t read or hear many stories, if any, that provide genuine perspective on Afghanistan in general and Kunar in particular, in large part because the province has been dismissed as a black hole by the U.S. military and media. By contrast, over the course of a year and a dozen visits, we found it to offer a glimpse of where the country is heading, and discovered a story only half told. While “Restrepo” provided America with the opportunity to step into the combat boots of a U.S. soldier in the Korengal, almost nothing is known about the other side—who lived there, and why they fought.

This is a defining theme of America’s engagements here and in the Middle East—as is the sense that once the Americans are gone, the places no longer matter. This always seemed odd to us given that 54 Americans died in the Korengal, more than any other one place in the country. It should always matter.

But why us? Because between us, we spent 14 years living and working in Afghanistan. These were spent mainly at the American University there, with Daniel as Director of Admissions and Matt as Director of Communications, and gradually we realized that it was possible to get around the country even in its current state if you knew the right people and spoke the languages. This was the project to put it all together, to see what was on the other side.

III

A line has been etched into the rock of Kunar’s Pech Valley. Here, the overt and covert worlds collide: Pakistan and Afghanistan’s intelligence agencies engage in a sideshow struggle while al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Americans, aided by the CIA, slog it out in the open. Drones, IEDs and suicide bombers are the weapons of choice. International jihadis are rumored to slip in and out, primarily Arabs and Chechens, who flocked to the country in large numbers in the 1990s when the Taliban reigned. The Afghan Army has deployed its best soldiers here, including battle-tested commandos trained by the CIA.

The Afghan police are here as well, as is the central government, attempting to shape the course of events from Asadabad, located at the entrance to the Pech Valley. The Peace and Reconciliation Office maintains an active presence and keeps a door wide open for Taliban who have doubts about the morality of killing their countrymen, and who may want to switch sides and join the government’s cause. The office is run by a former Hezb-e Islami commander who himself switched sides in 2009. Showing up a few minutes early for a meeting with him last summer, we were escorted by his aide into a side room, where we found ourselves exchanging formalities with active Taliban fighters from up the road interested in, at least, talking.

The Americans used to be in the area in large numbers, and though they left years ago, they did so only after sending home many of their dead. Fifty-four Americans lost their lives in the Korengal fighting a mission that, if it was ever clear to the American population why U.S. forces were there in the first place, is likely in danger of being forgotten.

The story is simple and one that belies the intensity of the conflict. Insurgents used the Korengal as a staging ground for attacks on the Pech Valley, a strategically vital corridor that stretches west to east from the province of Nuristan through Kunar almost to the Pakistani border. Controlling the corridor was essential to supporting deep operations elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan. To alleviate the pressure of attacks across the region, and to give time for the Afghan Army to take over security in the valley, U.S. soldiers pushed into the Pech and several of the valleys that feed it, including the Korengal.

Always nearby were—and still are—CIA paramilitary officers. “We were there mainly to go after the senior al Qaeda leadership and a substantial number of foreign fighters that were in that area,” said a former CIA paramilitary case officer who led raids into the Korengal Valley and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The area was kind of a way station or hub for those guys. In war, it always has been—it is the Pashtuns’ battlefield of choice for obvious reasons.”

The valley turned on the Americans after a series of arrests and detentions by U.S. forces. “The Americans were a tool, used by the Safis in the Pech to rid them of their competition in the timber trade,” Zalwar Khan said. The two tribes—Korengali and Safi—have been feuding for more than a century, when the inhabitants of the Korengal first moved there from Nuristan, displacing the Safi tribes. Despite the trade officially being banned, he explains, timber was still locally harvested and sold. Safi Pashtuns in the Pech, who didn’t have direct access to timber, would tell U.S. forces that certain Korengalis were collaborating with the insurgency. Like clockwork, U.S. forces would hunt them. In most cases, it was one man’s word against another. Zalwar Khan recalled he occasionally marched to the Korengal Outpost seeking the release of detained villagers. The locals started grumbling about a violent resistance. The cycle continued until airstrikes devastated houses in the tiny village of Yaka China in the upper Korengal and the elders declared war against U.S. forces in the valley.

This downward spiral involving local power politics was obvious to the Americans in the valley. “We always were wondering—are we fighting here because the ground is important or because we’ve chosen to fight here?” asked the CIA officer. “Is the insurgency here because we’re here, or does it exist without us? Now that the foreigners are largely gone, it’s a perfect test case to see how the insurgency plays out over the next few years.”

Zalwar Khan’s own nephew, Hajji Mateen, was the main insurgent leader in the valley. A wealthy timber baron who made his money exporting Kunar’s enormous Himalayan pines to Pakistan under Taliban rule, he began funding his own rebellion and building links with the budding insurgency when family members were killed in a U.S. airstrike. He quickly built a reputation as a ferocious commander who successfully coordinated attacks throughout the Pech and Korengal valleys. Our plan to meet him early last year was undone when he was killed by a drone strike in the Korengal.

When asked whether or not the fight against U.S. forces in the valley was a holy war akin to the resistance against the Soviet Union’s invasion, Zalwar Khan states plainly, “Of course it was a jihad.”

IV

Simply getting there is half the challenge. While Kabul sleeps, we slip out in the predawn darkness. Snoozing police sit sprawled in the middle of the road on plastic chairs, not bothering to look at our car, an old Toyota Corolla with faded colors and dented bumpers much like every other car in this country. We start picking up speed along the Kabul-Jalalabad Highway, a road built by the Chinese that connects the capital with the eastern provinces while winding its way up and down the Hindu Kush. On the outskirts of town before the final checkpoint inspecting cars leaving the city, we pass a seemingly endless expanse of construction equipment—tractors, cranes, steamrollers—shipped in by Afghan, Western and even Arab businessmen looking to get rich on a construction boom that began in earnest during the surge and has mellowed as resources have dried up. Much of it will never be used again, but it’s difficult to move, so it will stay put, perhaps eventually joining the ranks of rusting Soviet tanks on the other side of town as symbols of another foreign intervention.

Despite the early hour, the road teems with trucks and cars. Most of the trucks, ornately painted and festooned with flags of all shapes and sizes, are returning empty to Pakistan, having dropped off their goods in Kabul for distribution around the country. Cars swarm dangerously around them on this two-lane road carved, literally, into the side of a chain of mountains. Only a short rock wall separates us from a drop of hundreds of feet. It is this kind of terrain that makes this country so hard to secure.

WATAPOR VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 4: US Army soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade, 2nd Battalion - 12th Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Carson, Colorado, fly through mountainous terrain September 4, 2009 along the Watapor Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Located in the contentious Korengal Valley, local Afghan taliban and foreign fighters have strongly resisted the presence of US forces. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

US Army soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade, 2nd Battalion - 12th Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Carson, Colorado, fly through mountainous terrain September 4, 2009 along the Watapor Valley in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Located in the contentious Korengal Valley, local Afghan taliban and foreign fighters have strongly resisted the presence of US force

Most of the time, the three-hour, serpentine drive to Jalalabad is gorgeous and calm, though attacks can happen. Most resemble assassination attempts rather than coordinated assaults. Fighters nestled in the crags of the mountainside fire a few rounds or rocket-propelled grenades at a passing truck or convoy, then scurry away. One of President Karzai’s brothers, Ahmad Wali Khan Karzai, narrowly escaped an attack on his convoy on this road in 2009, only to be assassinated in his home in the southern city of Kandahar two years later.

Leaving the mountains and emerging onto the plains after descending more than 4,000 feet, it’s a different country, now largely a riverbed full of palm trees. While Afghans in Kabul talk about computers and the importance of social media, here there are no jeans or hair gel, just traditional clothing paired with highly traditional values and basic amenities: Nokias instead of iPhones. Edge internet instead of 3G. Six months out of the year, the temperatures exceed 100 degrees. It’s telling that Osama bin Laden chose this area to live and to run his feared Derunta Training Camp, which allegedly experimented with chemical weapons.

Finally reaching Jalalabad, we drive past the same airbase from which SEAL Team Six launched its successful raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan three years ago. We watch U.S. cargo planes, helicopters and drones take off and land. Nothing conveys the gravity of this war like seeing a drone descend missile-less minutes before another rises into the sky fully loaded. Drone policy is something debated in Kabul. Here they are not merely grist for conversation; they are the most distant extension of American military power. Some are headed to Kunar, others to Pakistan.

Jalalabad too bustles with activity—the city’s university enrolls more than 10,000 students from across the country and the bazaars are stuffed with Chinese-made products being traded in three languages. A phalanx of money-changers runs between the shops, converting Pakistani rupees to Afghan afghanis to U.S. dollars on the fly. Nobody pays anybody much mind, the atmosphere is one of sealing the deal over tea.

The temperament of the people changes from indifferent to suspicious as we cross the Behsud Bridge into the outskirts of Jalalabad, leaving the city and heading north-east to Kunar, skirting along the Pakistan border. Madrassas replace schools. Girls wear blue burqas despite being years from puberty, the usual time to don the body-length veil, which at that age functions as an external chastity belt.

The areas that are under the cultural if not literal control of the Taliban are visualized in the American mind and portrayed in the American media as places of darkness, full of hate, violence, guns and angry, bearded men. They are presumed to be inaccessible. This could not be farther from the reality of eastern Afghanistan, where the view is breathtaking, bordering on epic. A lush valley bursts with color in the summertime as full fields bloom with a wide variety of crops, fed by a wide, churning river that powers by and framed by a crystal blue sky with a burning, bright yellow sun. Snow-capped mountains emerge gently into view in the distance, covered in pine trees at the highest elevations. Men cross the river at shallow points with herds of animals while women tend the fields in colorful dresses.

Having traversed the Hindu Kush and the Kabul riverbed, we slip into Asadabad, a tiny provincial capital nestled along the Kunar River only a few miles from the Pakistani border. After a brief search by a security guard, we arrive in the city after passing a U.S. base surrounded by HESCOs and guard towers just ahead of the afternoon call to prayer.

Provided there’s no fighting on the road out of Asadabad, the Korengal Valley is just 20 minutes away. We’re in Taliban country.

V

We first met Hajji Zalwar Khan over tea and lunch in the Pech Valley in a house clinging to a cliff high above the valley floor. Utilizing relationships with local Kunaris that have been nurtured over the last decade, we determined the best method for contacting the Korengali council was through an acquaintance who, in his younger years, was a Hizb-e-Islami commander for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He readily agreed to host what he said would be the social event of the season: Two Americans and the entire council of elders from the Korengal Valley.

The commander’s house is in an area few, if any, Western journalists have ventured without being embedded with coalition troops. On the valley floor outside the windows of the house are the remnants of FOB Michigan, turned over to the Afghan Army in 2011. The small base was a way station for U.S. troops en route to the Korengal. Soldiers rotated out of the valley from other bases in the Pech for a weekend of relief from the fighting before being sent back.

As the dozen elders walk up the steps to the house in their best clothes, the weight of our work finally catches up to us and our heart rates spike—we’re about to sit down with the men responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of dozens of our countrymen.

Though we’ve mapped out a dozen different ways this meeting could go in planning sessions back in Kabul, it is impossible to prepare for being embraced in a formal Afghan greeting in a traditional Pashtun half hug involving one hand on a shoulder and the other on an elbow followed by a firm handshake by grey beards with faces that carry the scars of the last three decades of warfare with them.

The sensation peaks as we realize we’ve seen most of them—particularly the elder in the middle of the group walking proudly towards us—in “Restrepo,” a documentary that rightly or wrongly stands as the defining account of the American military experience in Afghanistan. Months from now, when we asked about two men with cameras who followed the Americans around, they don’t recall being filmed (nor do they express interest in seeing the movie). Zalwar Khan himself could only remember the name of one U.S. commander he coordinated with.

The elders stuck largely to formalities in our initial meeting in early 2013, which was as slow and uninformative as we expected it to be given that the only objective of the meeting was to introduce ourselves, explain our purpose and painstakingly start building a rapport. Zalwar Khan spoke two short sentences over two hours, delegating to younger elders to talk about the weather, the harvest, and the ancient history of the valley, our neutral topics guaranteed not to offend. With all of us seated along the edges of a room on cushions, the two of us at the head of the rectangle, we slowly began asking questions. Boys from the house, when not listening to the conversation, continuously ran between everyone, refilling tea glasses with boiling water. The elders politely answered our questions and nodded along while we took notes, and made the expected references to appreciating us and our quest for the truth, a formality Afghan elders use in their meetings when they aren’t sure what else to say but want to remain polite.

After two hours of slow and deliberate conversation, the boys, on cue from a nod by the house owner, disappear and return minutes later with dozens of plates of freshly killed chickens and heaps of sliced vegetables alongside bowls of soup and stacks of warm bread. We close our notebooks. One of them rolls out a food mat onto the carpet, filling in the rectangular space in front of us while the elders scooch closer. Another boy walks around and offers a water jug and basin for everyone to wash their hands. As is customary, nobody talks while we eat, and the room is full of the sounds of hungry men eating food prepared by several women we will never meet or, following custom, even ask about. The two of us exchange glances with each other as the rest of the room digs into the food with their hands—the atmosphere, with all of the elders smiling and passing around the plates in accordance with their standings in the tribal hierarchy, with Zalwar Khan, in a show of modesty, refusing food until everyone else has started eating, is peaceful and calm, and makes a mockery of our concerns about being mistreated. After everyone has had their fill, we thank them for their time and arrange our next meeting. The nods continue and we part ways.

We drive back to Asadabad in silence, where we switch cars for security reasons and begin the six hour drive back home. Neither of us says a word until we begin the ascent through the mountains back up into Kabul as the sun sets, a blinding orange turning slowly to a peaceful purple and light blue. Our headphones are in, with one of us listening to jazz and the other to heavy metal, snaking the cables under our shalwar kameezes and pakol hats.

For every subsequent meeting, of which there were more than a dozen over the course of a year, we started off talking about the jihad, heeding advice from two researchers who spent years in Kandahar working in close proximity to the Taliban. In Afghanistan, “the jihad” refers to the Soviet Union’s 10-year war here that began in 1979. On this subject, the elders cannot stop talking. In a society based largely on perceptions of pride and power, this event gave everyone on the resistance side a raison d’etre. Reality exploded into myth, with every boy in the region today claiming his father was responsible for wiping out entire divisions of Soviet armed columns or downing their feared Hind helicopters.

Over the course of these meetings, Zalwar Khan, whose name in Pashto means brave leader, becomes more relaxed. On several occasions, he arrives alone, allowing us total access and him the ability to speak frankly about sensitive topics without other elders listening. Alone or in groups, he begins to take the seat closest to us, and is increasingly animated, waving his hands and even slapping our knees while joking (he relays a popular joke from the valley related to a man needing to wait hours for another truck in a remote area after breaking the shocks on his truck while having sex with his wives) or asking a question. Even if there is a translator present, he starts looking us in the eye directly as he talks, almost trying to will us to understand his point of view. He takes an interest in the notes we’re taking, and even though he can’t read in any language, wants us to write more and more.

He is at the peak of his abilities as a narrator as he talks about the jihad against the Soviet Union. With his status as a commander during that war, his story is also the story of Kunar. He sticks only to specifics—the dates of operations, the number of people killed on both sides, even the number of bullets fired.

Decades ago, he may well have been one of the first people to fire bullets at Afghan soldiers backed by the Soviet Union, as the Pech Valley was the first region in Afghanistan to rebel. The circumstances—a downward spiral in relations triggered by minor events—is similar to the situation the Americans would find themselves in 30 years later. Then, it was the arrest of a popular leader named Mullah Kareem without just cause that provided the spark.

Zalwar Khan figured prominently in the repulsion of the Soviets from the Pech Valley, leading attacks up and down the valley, and ultimately from Kunar as the Soviets withdrew to Jalalabad. He fought under the flag of Hizb-e Islami Khalis, a prominent Afghan mujaheddin unit formed by Yunis Khalis, who met with President Reagan in 1988 and who subsequently called for another jihad—this time against the Americans—in 2003 before dying of old age in 2006.

Refusing to participate in the civil war following the collapse of the Afghan government in 1992, he practically waxes romantic about the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001. His rationale for embracing that period—one remembered by minorities, women and the world as the closest thing to hell a country had gone through in decades—is rooted in Islam.

“We learned from the radio that a group of good people who only believed in the Quran had taken power in Kabul and kicked out the warlords,” he said. “How could we have any problem with people like them? Anyone who comes to us and believes in the Quran is our friend, and who doesn’t is our enemy.”

“There was justice at that time,” he added. “There was no killing, there was no theft. If someone acted poorly, they were dealt with. The Taliban were Islamic and brought Islam with them, and all our justice is guided by Islam and the Quran. Whatever is acceptable to Islam is acceptable to us.”

He adds a strong caveat. “But remember, in the Korengal we don’t have the same problems as large cities. We all know each other, we are essentially family, so stealing and killing are not problems we have. Also, we can only talk about the Taliban in our area, and our relations were good. Our ideology was one. They first provided security and then they provided a stable economy for us.”

On the Americans he is much more circumspect, likely because while the war has finished for the U.S. soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley, it hasn’t ended for him. Attacks against the Afghan government are still planned by insurgents if not in his village of Aliabad, then certainly nearby.

Despite his valley’s disconnect from the rest of the country, his rationale for why the Americans came to Afghanistan is shared by most of the nation’s inhabitants. “The Americans came here to look for Osama bin Laden and to bring a friendly government with them,” he says. “We had nothing to do with bin Laden or any attack on the U.S. yet we’re being punished for this. He wasn’t here, so why did the U.S. stay?”

In the last several meetings, we discussed the Americans in the valley. He shifts his position on the cushions more than usual indicating his discomfort, but eventually, slowly and deliberately, he starts talking. That he chooses to lead with the topic of fear speaks volumes to the relationship we’ve developed—emotions related to being scared are never discussed here or anywhere in the country. As a famous Afghan storyteller put it: “The Pashtun must shoot. If he does not, his sister will not look him in the eye, his mother will disown him, and his wife will be unable to bear the shame.” As another elder in the valley put it—perhaps more succinctly—“emotions are for women.”

“I think everyone was afraid of everyone at some time or another in the valley. The Americans feared the Taliban and the Taliban feared the Americans,” he said. “But the real threat wasn’t from the soldiers, but from the helicopters. They fell out of the sky and were so loud, so unstoppable.” Although Zalwar Khan never spoke of empathy for U.S. forces in the valley, the resonance of his speech indicated that he understood their position. He spoke equally unemotionally about the Taliban.

A defining theme of “Restrepo” was the lack of American information on the people they were fighting and, far more importantly, where they were (ignoring generalizations about them being everywhere or just out of sight).“The Americans never understood who they were fighting,” Zalwar Khan states categorically. “Young boys and old men joined the fight, even women at times would pick up weapons to attack the Americans.” Addressing the American insistence on foreign jihadis leading the assault in the valley, he laughs and begs us to understand just how xenophobic his valley is before acknowledging that they did in fact play a role. “Yes, there were some foreigners in the valley, but they lived in the upper reaches of the valley, near the ridge lines, where they weren’t seen by anyone else. They did fight sometimes but were mainly involved in other things,” refusing to elaborate.

He insists that this lack of information was shared on the Taliban side, who, while they knew where the Americans were, never knew how many soldiers they were going up against and how many bases they had at their disposal. “If I had to guess [for them], I would say they thought there were about one thousand American soldiers in the valley. They had at least seven bases, but they also operated out of a few houses sometimes, which made it difficult to count the exact number.” In actuality, there were less than 300 U.S. soldiers in the valley at any given time.

When we asked about where the ammunition in the Korengal came from, all that Zalwar Khan ever said was, “They came from Allah.” We nod our heads towards Pakistan and he is quiet, staring at the floor.

VI

The second-to-last time we met Zalwar Khan, he brought a man he introduced as his cousin. Crowned in a gray woolen pakol, the man was in his early thirties and exuded a look we know well—the confidence of a trained killer who had seen combat. His wide eyes, betraying his surprise at meeting two Americans, seemed to stare into our souls until he reconciled our existence so close to his own. He was most certainly a fighter or commander from the valley sent along to see what Zalwar Khan had been talking about with the local councils about our meetings. We met on the third floor of a shabby building in Asadabad in an impossibly spare room that we dragged cushions into. They are two hours late to our meeting, held up by fighting on the road.

Zalwar Khan, apologizing for being late, is relaxed and the mood is light. Over the course of the year, he’s become increasingly fond of us in an odd old-man way and opens our conversation with some jokes about sex and women. The man he’s brought with him laughs the hardest. We chat like soldiers from opposing sides decades after the last bullet was fired. We take no notes and instead talk leisurely about life and the future. There’s no talk of the Korengal, America, or the Taliban. Lunch finally arrives, this time not a sumptuous feast but fish wrapped in a military newspaper distributed on U.S. bases. For a while we sit quietly digging through pieces of fish, the tiny bones getting stuck in our teeth. We continuously pause to pull them out while Zalwar Khan and his companion smirk at us and chew unbothered.

Matt Trevithick

With lunch finished, the mood relaxed and the fighter finally starting to make eye contact with us, it seems the perfect time to ask the big question. The conversation falls off and silence hangs in the air. Our heart rates once again rising, we exchange glances and barely perceptible nods, the two of us agreeing that this is the moment. Matt is sitting next to him and Zalwar Khan has slapped him on the knee several times while joking today, as good an indicator as we’re going to get that the mental barriers are down.

“Can we enter the Korengal Valley?” we ask.

Zalwar Khan takes a deep breath and sits still. After a long silence where he gathers his thoughts, he tells us that he has been talking about us in the last few valley meetings. He then discusses the necessary permissions needed to enter. To enter the Korengal, Zalwar Khan says we must have permission from Kunar’s shadow Taliban governor, a man named Nasratullah. Coincidently, both he and the deputy shadow governor are Korengalis and Zalwar Khan knows them well. He says he will speak with them and will have an answer for us in a week.

Eight days later, the call comes.

VII

Driving into the Pech Valley, Zalwar Khan and the driver talk in local Korengali, an unwritten language spoken by no more than a few thousand people. Despite months of studying Pashai, Korengali’s closest linguistic cousin, we miss what he’s saying and ask him to clarify. He’s focused on the harvest; he hopes it has been good for the people who live here.

Following the contours of the Pech River, we continue deeper into its valley, passing the sites of abandoned U.S. firebases: California, Honaker Miracle, Michigan. Once emblematic of American military muscle, the outposts are now skeletal shells. Afghan Army personnel have sold the materials from which the bases were constructed to local villagers, who have used them to build homes, shops, livestock fences, and chicken coops. We pass through Bar Kanday, the site of Afghanistan’s first attack on Soviet forces more than three decades ago. Three kids play cricket among the crude gravestones in a cemetery that is the largest in the province. Many of the plots are fresh, dedicated to locals who died fighting their holy war against U.S. and Afghan troops.

We stop, finally, in Kandigal, a tiny hamlet that straddles the river at the mouth of the Korengal Valley. The village was a key part of a timber trade that thrived until 2006, when President Karzai shut the trade down after realizing that timber sales were directly fueling the insurgency. Today, ton-sized pieces of lumber lay rotting in the cool morning air.

We’ve made it through two districts and five Afghan Army checkpoints without drawing any attention, using a general rule of thumb we learned a long time ago while talking with elders around the country who are essentially unarmed, smiling Taliban: have the longest beard in the room, preferably longer than the local mullah. A tragic misunderstanding with a colorful barber who hates beards in Kabul results in Matt’s being cut short (amid much cursing in English and invitations back to his place to drink wine and dance in Dari), but Dan’s is still chest length and suffices. We’ve also gone to unusual lengths to match the outfits of everyone in the region: Though we were in Kabul yesterday, we haven’t showered for days, and have matched Zalwar Khan’s appearance down to the cheap watch and toothbrush twigs. We’ve fine-tuned our Pashto language skills for the trip. Early on, we learned that joking with the Afghan Army at checkpoints was easily the best mechanism to defuse any situation; when they started looking too closely, we asked if they liked what they saw and offered our phone numbers if they wanted to stay in touch, which always elicited a laugh and a wave through. Because the Pech Valley road leads to Nuristan, home of the mythical blonde-haired, blue-eyed Afghans, the right combination of all of this, straight down to the accented Pashto, has let us slip in and out of this area for a year undetected. But perhaps our best disguise is the fact that no foreigners—not least an American duo that includes someone with blonde hair and blue eyes—ever come here.

One hundred meters from the entrance to the Korengal we stop for breakfast. The driver, the two of us, and a translator sit in the cold morning air in a vacant teahouse while Zalwar Khan walks ahead, which he insisted he do alone. A man outside cuts the liver and heart out of a cow carcass with a large knife, then chops up the remainder with a cleaver while enormous, unleashed dogs stare hungrily. Zalwar Khan returns quickly and begins his morning prayers, spreading out a plastic mat and folding his arms over his chest. Whispering to himself and bowing, he touches his forehead to the ground. The ritual is repeated until complete and he joins us for a feast of piping hot black tea, stale bread and fresh cow’s milk.

A small stream flows from high up in the Korengal and meanders down through the valley before emptying into the Pech River. Near the confluence of these two rivers a tiny bridge spans the gap connecting the Korengal with the Pech. The Afghan Army maintains a small check-point on the Kandigal side of the bridge. There’s a cat and mouse relationship between the Afghan Army and the locals. Neither trusts the other, yet cultural norms dictate that everyone remain cordial.

The week before we arrived, this checkpoint—little more than a collection of sandbags—was hit hard by a coordinated insurgent attack. Mounting a three-hour assault using heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, insurgents forced the Afghan Army soldiers to temporarily retreat. Though the army took no casualties, the intensity of the fight and its well-coordinated nature raised suspicions about everyone entering or leaving the Korengal.

After finishing breakfast, we pile back into the truck and head toward the checkpoint.

A young army soldier approaches our vehicle as we stop on the bridge. He greets Zalwar Khan like an old friend and jokes with the driver. They ask how one another are while the grunt, with his worn fatigues and American-issued rifle, casually inspects the vehicle and us. It’s a carefully choreographed dance, as the soldier knows Zalwar Khan is close to the Taliban who have attacked him before and will likely attack him again. He walks to the back of the vehicle and peers into the bed. We’re hauling, in addition to ourselves, some PVC pipes used to redirect a stream near to Zalwar Khan’s house, which, being only available in Asadabad, would explain why the truck is coming from there. The grunt asks us where we are going and we respond, “to the Korengal.” He nods and asks our translator where we are coming from. The apparent gravity of the situation causes our interpreter to stumble, failing to articulate anything more than a nervous response. We mutter that he needs to speak with more conviction. Our eyes revert straight ahead, feeling as if this entire trip is sliding outside of our control, frustrated that the entirety of our work hangs on this one, brief exchange. The grunt takes a hard look at our interpreter, rotates his M16 and opens the vehicle door, motioning for us to get out.

VIII

After a quick search, the soldier orders us back in and jumps in the truck himself, telling the driver to take us to the old FOB Michigan, where our passports are reviewed to confirm our identities. The Korengal is now behind us, and we’re never going to see it again. The soldiers are polite and professional but it’s clear they are suspicious about why we are with Zalwar Khan, who is doing his best to calmly explain what we were trying to do to a circle of hard-edged army officers. We’re then sent deeper into the Pech Valley to former FOB Blessing, where the Afghan Army’s commander meets with us, makes a few phone calls back to Kabul, and begins arranging a trip for us to Sarkani, an American base near Asadabad. We’re told that the next scheduled convoy is in two days. The agony of being so close to our goal but failing gnaws at our insides while we replay the events over and over in our heads. We pass the time drinking tea, talking about the valley and watching Dari-language Indian soap operas on the commander’s satellite TV. Driving out of the Pech Valley in Afghan Army Humvees issued by the U.S., we arrive at Sarkani where we are assigned two open seats on a visiting general’s Blackhawks headed to Bagram Airbase. Before boarding, we glance and nod towards Zalwar Khan who has the look of a man who’s been in this position before. Once at Bagram, we answer the curious general’s questions and are released.

Our trip to the Korengal ended at the valley entrance, a stone’s throw away from a year-long investment. A year spent preparing and arranging this trip collapsed at the valley entrance in an exchange lasting less than three minutes.

Zalwar Khan, whose immediate family led what they considered a holy war against U.S. forces, was held for just over a week on suspicions of being an American spy, demonstrating the Afghan government’s concerns that the Americans have been negotiating a separate peace with the Taliban behind their back. His questioners were polite and formal, and once the absurdity of the claim became more apparent, he was released to a waiting group of elders from his village.

IX

Such is the view from the Pech Valley in Kunar, a frontline that appears to be holding against substantial odds. Transitioned to Afghan control in 2011, the Afghan Army now conducts patrols, maintains checkpoints and searches villages unilaterally throughout the area. The violence continues, but on a scale diminished since when American bases and outposts dotted the province. With American support confined to the shadows (or 15,000 feet), the Afghan Army’s top units seem to be increasingly capable of fending for themselves. And with a long-term security agreement with the U.S. signed, this support is assured to continue.

Far more important than military victories to any eventual peace in this country—however uneasy—is the disposition of people and their attitudes towards the central government. And in a year of discussions with the elders of one of Afghanistan’s most violent districts who encouraged the Taliban to operate freely in their areas, one point came across clearly: More of the Afghan government’s enemies are open to talks and discussions than is commonly portrayed, shattering the illusion of an implacable ideological unity among the resistance. They are well aware that the war will not go on forever.

Matt Trevithick

In the 1980s, under circumstances substantially more violent and politicized than today, Zalwar Khan was summoned to Kabul by then President Babrak Karmal, the communist leader whose socialist and atheistic policies largely served to stiffen the resistance to the government. For seven days, he sat in the presidential palace and discussed with Karmal what could be done to bring peace to the Pech Valley. “We agreed on 12 of the 14 points we discussed,” Zalwar Khan told us. The two remaining points revolved around Islam, which the officially atheist government refused to endorse. “We would have stopped everything if we could have agreed on all 14 points.”

Following the departure of the Americans, Zalwar Khan has today largely recast the role he played in the 1980s, now participating in weekly meetings with the Afghan government and its military to discuss how the Korengal Valley can be left alone, without government intervention unless specifically through invitation. It’s by no means an easy proposition—to this day, some of the attacks that occur in the Pech originate from villages next to his in the Korengal, exasperating the government. From his side (meaning the Taliban’s), the presence of government forces so close to his valley is proof of their intentions to subjugate it the minute they lay down their weapons.

And while he is not overly optimistic, Zalwar Khan does positively note the existence of regional peace councils, to which he is invited weekly. “The Soviets never had these, you could tell they weren’t ever really interested in peace,” he said, insisting that, in fact, he is now that the Americans have left his valley.

Today, the Afghan Army is launching increasingly aggressive operations deeper into the mountainous province to clear out insurgent strongholds. U.S. forces, for their part, continue to train their Afghan counterparts to fight against a stubborn insurgency at their few remaining bases.

Zalwar Khan has returned to the Korengal. He still holds his weekly shuras with elders from the other villages and the Taliban on the one hand and continues to meet regularly with the Afghan government on the other. With the Americans nowhere in sight and the fight increasingly Afghan against Afghan, time will tell if anything comes of his balancing act.

It’s not clear what we became to Zalwar Khan and the Korengalis. Friends is definitely the wrong word. The tragedy America faced in that valley will always overshadow any other thoughts we have about the place. Years from now when we think about the Korengal and all that it encapsulates for those of us who are familiar with it, one enigmatic expression coined by those Americans who fought, bled and died there will continue to echo soundly—damn the valley.