Special Forces ODA 3336 deep in the Hindu Kush, gallantry and courage
By Ed Marek, editor
March 16, 2009
The environment of the target area, Nuristan and the Hindu Kush
The environment associated with ODA 3336's target area stood among its most demanding challenges. Indeed, the ODA 3336-led force faced the same environmental limitations seen by Alexander the Great and all the others who attempted to extend their empires to this area.
ODA 3336's battle was in the Shuk Valley of Nuristan Province, in the northeast, along the border with Pakistan. I'm going to take you there by first looking at the broad continental environment of the Hindu Kush Mountains and step by step zoom down to the Shuk Valley of Nuristan. As an aside, most articles about the battle spell the Shuk Valley the "Shok Valley." I am told by experts in the language that the proper name is Shuk, so that's what I have tried to use, though you might find a few instances where I get wrapped around the axle and use Shok.
This map shows the Water Towers of Asia in the greater Himalayas-Hindu-Kush-Tien Shan-Tibet region, stretching from China to Afghanistan. The UN’s Environmental Programs (UNEP)-Grid Arendal describes the region:
“The Himalayas–Hindu Kush, Kunlun Shan, Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges function as water towers, providing water to people through much of Asia. The glacier-fed rivers originating from the Himalayan mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau comprise the largest river run-off from any single location in the world. While the mountains are homes to some 170 million people, the rivers that drain these mountains influence the lives of about 40 per cent of the world’s population. The rivers provide household water, food, fisheries, power, jobs and are at the heart of cultural traditions. The rivers shape the landscape and ecosystems and are important in terms of biodiversity. While mountains traditionally have been considered the major water sources of the region, there is great diversity in the hydrological significance of mountains and glaciers for downstream water supply, particularly between the dry north-western region and the monsoon-influenced south-eastern regions. In spite of the vast water supply, seasonal water scarcity is a major issue.”
Keep this "water tower" idea in mind. ODA 3336 had to contend with it.
On the above map, you can see that the Hindu-Kush is the western offshoot of the Himalayas, and that Afghanistan is at the western terminus. Let's zoom in a bit and look at two maps. The blue dots on the maps reflect the general location of the Shuk Valley, close to Pakistan, close to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, the NWFP.
Willem Vogelsang, in his book, The Afghans (Peoples of Asia), describes the Hindu Kush:
"The Hindu Kush rises high above the plains and valleys of Afghanistan."
He writes that these mountains occupy much of the center and northeast sectors of the country, generally declining in elevation as one moves to the west. There are a lot of mountains and high elevations, and there are a lot of deserts, but as the elevations decline they decline into deserts situated in the far northwest, western and southern border areas.
For our purposes, the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan are the mountains from the area north of Kabul to the northern border with Tajikistan and running to the east into Pakistan. The Hindu Kush has historically been an obstacle for those wishing to pass through or control the areas on either side, including ancient Iranians, ancient Greeks, Chinese Buddhists and Alexander the Great.
The Silk Road, in reddish-brown. Eurasian Steppe Route to the north in orange. Main Connecting Routes in blue. Presented by Yalun Arifin.
The Silk Road, an extensive network of trade routes, over 5,000 miles, running east-west from China to Europe, was roughly on the north side of the Hindu Kush. Trade along this route helped establish many significant parts of the world and caused their cultures to spread and interact. Its development and use began Before Christ, mainly from China.
There are multiple passes through the mountains that historically enabled extensive human traffic in a north-south direction from central Asia in the north into Afghanistan and then to Iran and India and what is now Pakistan, to the sea. There are also passes from east to west. Historically, some of the more famous passes were those that led to the Indian subcontinent. However, there are also important passes into Xinjiang, China and into Kashmir, to Chitral, Pakistan, and passes linking various provinces within Afghanistan.
What is worth remembering here is that despite her rugged terrain, and the fact that she is landlocked, Afghanistan has been a crossroads between east and west and north and south. There are ways to get from one point to another, many not easy, but there are ways. As a result, the region has seen plenty of invaders, conquerors, and migrations.
This is obviously a tough map to read, but it reflects the rivers in Afghanistan. I show it to you to convey the fact that Afghanistan has a lot of rivers and river basin areas, except in the southern desert areas.
Here's a less complicated view, showing the major rivers. The red dot roughly approximates the Shuk Valley, the place where ODA 3336 fought in April 2008. The dotted lines mark national borders. The Shuk Valley lies just north of the east-west Kabul River and between several north-south rivers. I'll focus more on those in a moment.
Afghanistan's rivers are supported by the mountain streams, sporting high levels when the winter snow melts. This will be an important point when we describe ODA 3336's battle, which took place in April, the spring thaw. Most of these rivers end in salty swamps. They create very few lakes.
Summers are hot, winters cold, and temperatures can vary quite a bit during a single day. The deserts receive very little rain.
Nuristan, marked in dark red, is the province in which the ODA 3336 raid of April 6, 2008 occurred. As you can see, the province is in the far northeast, in the heart of the Hindu Kush, and borders with Pakistan. It is known to many as "The Forgotten Province." There have been no schools or road networks built in this province in the last 30 years. Medical facilities are scarce. Harvesting poppy has been a main source of income.
I commend Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site as an authoritative source for researching the area and its people. I have drawn from it here.
Ethnolinguistic groups in Afghanistan. Presented by the University of Texas Map Library.
The Nuristan Province was created in 2002 in order to appease the Nuristanis’ desire for greater control over their region. Nuristanis are a distinct ethnic group. This area previously was divided between Laghman and Kunar provinces, administered by Afghans largely separated from the Nuristani people.
Nuristanis are an Indo-European people, some say Indo-Iranian. The province is sparsely populated, something over 100,000, perhaps as many as 300,000. There are perhaps five or six ethnic groups living here, but Nuristanis constitute the overwhelming majority of people, so overwhelming that some say it is the only ethnically homogeneous province in the country. They live in the orange area marked by the top black arrow on the map. I have also marked the light green area with the bottom black arrow, mostly inhabited by the Pashtuns, a frequently mentioned people of southern and eastern Afghanistan, one we have addressed previously. That light green area extends well into Pakistan. You will recall that the Durand Line separated them, some in Afghanistan, some in Pakistan. The Pashtuns number about 40 percent of the Afghanistan's population.
Nuristanis were largely “non-believers,” but were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam in 1895 during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman. That was during a period of British occupation, a period when Islam was moving to the east through Afghanistan. In turn they became devout Muslims, though they do practice non-Islamic customs and traditions. They are an independent people. They hated the communists and the Soviets and fought fiercely against the Soviets during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation. At one point, eastern Nuristan became a semi-autonomous region known as the Islamic Revolutionary State of Afghanistan.
Nuristan borders Pakistan and is on the southern slopes of the Hindu-Kush. The main geographic boundaries are the watersheds of the upper Alingar (Laghman) River in the west, the upper Pech River in the center, and the LanDai Sin and Konar Rivers in the east. These rivers feed the east-west Kabul River to the south, and are part of the Kabul River Basin. The Kabul River flows outside this map, to the south, from west to east into Pakistan to join the Indus River which empties into the Indian Ocean.
For purposes of ODA 3336's fight in April 2008, we will focus later on a tributary of the Alingar. The Shuk Valley lies roughly under the "N" in Alingar on the map.
The province is marked by high mountain ridges separated by V-shaped valleys. There is little rain. Most water comes from the melting snow into the many streams and rivers.
Cpl. Michael Good, a Soldier from B Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, moves along a path overlooking the mountainside village of Aranas while on patrol in the Nuristan province. Photo credit: Spc. Eric JungelsView, USCENTCOM.
The province is rugged, caged in by steep cliffs, heavily forested, almost impassable, mostly accessible only by foot-trails. The "forested" characteristic is unusual for the country. Most of Afghanistan is described well by the troops ---- naked.
A source of Nuristani pride is the manner in which they construct their villages to harmonize with the environment, often good enough to withstand earthquakes.
Mountain pass in eastern Nuristan. Photo credit: Borje Almqvist, 1985, extracted from "Provincial Survey of Nuristan", by Katarina Larsson published in May 2006 by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.
As said earlier, there are a great number of rivers and streams carving through the valleys. The main three valleys are the Bashgal in the east, the Wagal in the center-east, and the Ramgal in the west. The valleys are rocky, deep, narrow and steep; the mountain ridges are rugged.
Katarina Larsson's "Provincial Survey of Nuristan" published in May 2006 by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan shows this view of a valley and mountains in Nuristan.
This is a most interesting photo of soldiers of Chosen Co., 2-503 Infantry, on patrol in the Jamachgal-Khwar Valley in Nuristan. They almost blend in with the terrain. Photo credit belongs to Sgt. Henry Selzer.
While this is rugged territory, there are ways to get around. In fact, J. Alexander Thier, in his book, Future of Afghanistan, writes:
"For more than 4,000 years, Afghanistan served as a bridge between continents and cultures ... The notion of Afghanistan as an insular, intolerant, and hide-bound society represents a fundamental misreading of its history and misunderstanding of its culture. Afghanistan is at its best when it serves as a conduit of cooperation between countries on its borders and those further away."
The black arrows show the major Taliban infiltration routes from Pakistan through Nuristan. There are numerous hiding places, mountain passes and trails that connect to a back door with Pakistan. The mountains rise to about 6,300 meters ASL with most of the mountain passes at 4,700 meters. I have identified each of the districts, and approximately located the Shuk Valley with a green dot, in the Mandol District.
The Taliban has found it easiest and most productive to deal with local tribal leaders in Nuristan instead of searching for or setting up a power broker. Mandol has not been seen as a cauldron of insurgency like Kamdesh, Barhgi Matal and Wagal.
Terraces opening up toward Shakut, Afghanistan, April 12, 2007. Photo credit: jreabe jreabe, presented at webshot.com
Much irrigation in the province occurs on small terraced fields employing carefully crafted wooden channels. These impacted ODA 3336’s mission which you'll see when I describe the battle.
This is a terrific land cover map of Nuristan, produced by the UN -AIMS. Regrettably it's very small here. There are five major north-south valleys and 30 east-west lateral valleys. The green shows open and closed cover natural forest. Much of the Hindu Kush is not this forested, but is more like naked land. The light blue reflects areas of marshland while the light orange shows rangelands of grass, forbs (herbaceous flowering plants other than grass), and low shrubs. The darker golden-orange shows rock outcrop areas. I have placed a red dot to mark the area of the Shuk Valley, deep in the mountains, in a heavily forested area, but not far from rangelands.
The province has experienced environmental degradation over the years, and the density of forest cover has declined significantly through deforestation. The Taliban government had a lot to do with this deforestation, making massive profits from moving timber into Pakistan for sale. The presence of US forces has inhibited this timber smuggling trade and angered the timber barons. You often hear about how our forces have angered the opium barons; well, they have also pissed off the timber barons!
The province has six administrative districts which were intended to reflect tribal boundaries, though that objective was not always met.
ODA 3336’s raid was in the Shuk Valley area of the Mandol District of Nuristan Province. This map shows the six districts. Mandol is the western-most district. We will focus on it.
I've whittled you down from the broad area look of the Water Towers of Asia and the Himalayas-Hindu-Kush-Tien Shan-Tibet region all the way through Afghanistan to Nuristan and now down to a district within Nuristan. Please remember that while Mandol is the western-most district in Nuristan, the entire province is among the eastern-most provinces of Afghanistan, the province is in the northeast, it borders on Pakistan, and is just north of the Khyber Pass. We are in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush and in a heavily forested area marked with plenty of rivers.
We are now focused exclusively on the Mandol District of Nuristan Province. This is a UN-AIMS Map for Mandol District assembled for 2002. Shuk is in a valley that drains to the southwest into the Kulem Valley, which drains into the Alingar in Doâb District in western Nuristan Province. I have marked Shuk with a red dot. While the verbiage on the map is unreadable here, you can sense the number of villages along the Alingar River, a major thoroughfare for the district. You can also see that Shuk is in a rather isolated position.
The Mandol District, like the rest of the province, lacks infrastructure. Building roads here is a high priority.
This UN-AIMS Map for Nuristan Province shows no primary or secondary roads anywhere in the province. The one red line in the east reflects what the UN calls a "track." Calling Nuristan the "Forgotten province" is an understatement.
There are some roads, bridges and culverts, but they’re rudimentary, many simply narrow gravel or dirt, and in sad shape. This is a photo credited to SSgt. Michael Braecken, USA, taken in June 14, 2007. It shows US soldiers from the Kalagash Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) on a typical Nuristani "road". This one is known as the Titan Road. I'll show another photo of this project in a moment.
These soldiers are preparing to walk down that ravine to a remote village below during a patrol. Keep this photo in mind, as ODA 3336 forces had to walk up a ravine to get to their target village. The yellow arrow points to a short tunnel under the mountains carved out to get from one side to the other. I present this to give you an idea of what it's like. These soldiers are looking down the ravine, which is rocky and steep. ODA 3336 had to climb up such a ravine to get to their target, and then had to scurry down a ravine, or cliff in their case, to get out.
This photo is an example of the nakedness of much of the Hindu Kush. This is not one of the forested areas highlighted earlier. You will recall that the Shuk Valley is located in a forested area.
The Titan Road being constructed in western Nuristan, December 2005. Extracted from "Provincial Survey of Nuristan", by Katarina Larsson published in May 2006 by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.
While building roads is a high priority for US forces and aid agencies, building them is no easy chore. This is another view of the Titan Road I showed earlier. Roads are feasible only if they follow natural river and contour lines. You cannot simply take the shortest route from A to B as that route would probably cross high altitude passes and passes that vary significantly in elevation. This has been a bone of contention between US engineers and Afghan planners. The Afghans frequently wants to go the way the crow flies, while the US engineers argue they cannot build roads that way.
The role of paved roads in the Afghan war is a point of debate.
Obviously, reasonably good roads make it is easier to move people, equipment and supplies. That is good for building Afghanistan and winning the hearts and minds of the afghan people.
On the other hand, if you have such roads, you have to secure them. If you want to build such roads, you have to secure the area during the building process. In the case of the Mandol District, securing the areas where paved roads make sense is extraordinarily difficult. The Soviets had a big problem with this. They would build bridges, for example, sorely needed by the people, and the mujahadeen would simply blow them up. The Soviets as a result did not make much progress.
US forces have been working with the Nuristanis to build some roads, a good sign that the people in the region want progress rather than insurgent warfare. The Americans and their Afghan allies need the support of the people to secure the areas where roads are needed. Our forces and their provincial reconstruction teams are making progress here, but it's slow. Building trust is very hard with the Afghans. Their history tells us why.
In 2007, the UN reported a 2003 district population of 11,875 in 74 villages, eleven schools, two health centers and only 20 percent of the population served by electricity. This map, prepared by the Rural Expansion of Afghanistan's Community-based Healthcare (REACH) organization, and extracted from "Provincial Survey of Nuristan", by Katarina Larsson published in May 2006 by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, shows no hospitals in the province, and eight Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) clinics. Mandol District has only an even smaller clinics. Building medical centers, schools and water supply projects have had a priority. Again, securing the areas is crucial. This helps explain why commanders call for more forces --- they can go in and trounce the enemy, but then they have to leave because they lack the resources to stay. So just as experienced by the Soviets, the enemy comes back.
People die of things we casually go to the doctor to fix --- get struck by appendicitis, even child delivery, or an infection. The locals do their best knowing the likelihood is high the patient will die. Where we might infect a finger by biting our nails, they could die of the resulting infection.
The school situation is bad as well. The most recent figures I have seen say there are 15 schools for boys in the district, 16 for girls, with 4755 boys and 949 girls attending. The boys have 163 male teachers while the girls have 16 female teachers.
I'd like to show you a school in Nuristan that has been rebuilt after collapsing under the weight of snow in the winter of 2004-2005.
This is a school being rebuilt in Gaverdish, Nuristan. This shows the original school under construction before the exterior plastering was done. What you see is the method of original construction, called traditional "Timber Laced Stone Masonry." The next photo shows the rebuilt school in its final phase.
Note here that in in this sector of Nuristan you are seeing forest cover in the Hindu Kush.
Largely because of the "lack of everything situation" that exists in this province, Nuristanis are not hot on the Kabul government and don't trust it. Officials here argue that their province is not a hot-bed of terrorism or insurgency, perhaps with the exception of the northeastern Kamdesh District sharing a volatile border area with Pakistan. The general consensus is that the people of the province want peace and the chance to develop. So the province is important.
We've covered a lot of ground, addressing Afghanistan's history and now its environment, especially in Nuristan where ODA 3336 operated on April 6, 2008. Let’s now turn to the target, and outfit called HIG.