Nangalam, Afghanistan – In the mountains of eastern Afghanistan sits a small village like so many villages in this country. Tucked away in the valley, Nangalam is the main commerce point in the region supporting a population of over 90,000 local inhabitants. The village defies western perceptions of a population hub of this size, with its dirt streets, raw sewage draining onto the ground, and scattered shops that seem more like flea market sites than established vendors. Yet, Nangalam is considered economically prosperous by Afghan standards.

A short distance from the town is the fire base that is home to a detachment of the Afghan National Army and a group of Army National Guard Embedded Trainers (ETTs). From this base, both Afghan soldiers and ETTs push out to farther and more remote locations, making contact with and maintaining a presence in some of the most remote villages in the area. It is not uncommon to find that the residents of these farther out locations know little about current political changes, or even that the United States is involved in the affairs of Afghanistan.

The village and the fire base maintain a symbiotic relationship. As a source for many of the daily supplies that both the Afghan and American soldiers use and need, the village gains commerce while also providing a stable source of labor. The base improvements are contracted out locally, as are a variety of tasks that maintain the daily operations of the fire base. As a result, Nangalam has become a relatively safe village to be in and around. With a daily presence of Afghan National Army and US soldiers, and an economic gain worth tens of thousands each month, insurgent elements have had a difficult time re-establishing an inner village foothold.

That was not always the case. Nangalam and the fire base are situated in an area that was the scene of intense fighting in the initial period following the invasion of Afghanistan. It was in this region that intelligence suggested that Osama bin Laden himself was moving. At one point, a small element of US Army Rangers was nearly overrun by a superior force of three to four hundred Taliban who pushed them back into a single building on the existing fire base. Through pure determination and air support that dropped ordinance nearly on top of the US forces, the attack was eventually repelled and the base secured.

I was with Washington Army National Guard Embedded Trainer, Lieutenant Doxey. He was preparing for a move up the mountain with a unit of Afghan National Army soldiers. In preparation for the move, they needed propane and a burner for cooking. The upper mountain bases where they were heading had few amenities, and cooking fuel was in short supply. A trip was arranged to go into the village and purchase what was needed.

All movements in Afghanistan take on a certain risk; some less than others. Though the relationship with Nangalam is currently sound, that security can change suddenly and at times without warning. As a result, travel into the village is always done in groups, and the soldiers are always armed.

On this day there had been reports of an all Arab insurgent group amassing in the valley a few kilometers away. Locals were afraid to discuss it much, other than to confirm sightings. As we moved through the village, Lt. Doxey approached a local vendor to purchase a new Afghan scarf in the traditional colors of black and white. As he sorted through the hanging displays, he noticed that the vendor was now carrying a new scarf in the traditional Arab colors of red and white. Doxey commented to the vendor, “This is new. These aren’t the traditional Afghan colors?” The vendor acknowledged that they were not, but said little more.

The ongoing challenge in building relations with a village such as Nangalam is the aspect of fear the is part of every villagers life. One of the key tools of the insurgent groups are their threats of reprisal against any villager that cooperates with Afghan national forces or US forces. The economic relationships that are encouraged and developed help minimize the insurgents effectiveness, however, the insurgents are quick to capitalize on history, reminding the villagers that they will remain long after the foreign armies have left.

Complicating the matter further is the ever present role of Pakistan. As Lt. Doxey stated, “Pakistan is the greatest threat to stability in Afghanistan right now.” Allowing safe haven and even material and financial support for insurgent fighters, Pakistan has become Afghanistan’s nemesis as it works to establish a foundation for its new government. The insurgents move in and out of the Pakistan, arriving in villages to initially recruit new fighters and failing that, using the threat of retaliation against villagers sympathetic to the US and the Afghan government’s efforts. It spite of that, it is the ongoing efforts of ETTs such as Lt. Doxey that make a difference.

As we strolled along the main street of Nangalam, Lt. Doxey took time to greet some of the locals that have come to know him. “Hello. How are you today?”, greeting a local villager who provided donkeys that are used to re-supply one of Doxey’s upper fire bases. As he talked, Doxey made of point of inquiring again if this villager had had any problem with Taliban or insurgent fighters. The answer was once again “no.”

Moving deeper into the village, we eventually came to the vendor who would be providing the propane that Doxey needed. “This is not my normal vendor, but I’m told my regular vendor is gone today. So I guess this one will have to do.” With an introduction translated by Doxey’s interpreter, Doxey was informed that while the propane was available, the owner of the shop had stepped out, so a sale could not be made at the moment. Doxey smiled, “Just another day in Afghanistan.” Through translation again, Doxey asked if the man could at least prepare the propane tank with the needed fuel and have it ready when the owner returned. The attendant agreed, and informed Doxey that the owner was expected back in the next fifteen to twenty minutes. “I guess we’ll do some more shopping then,” as we headed further up the street.

Lt. Doxey like so many embedded trainers realize the importance of taking time to make contact with the children. Walking further up the main street, the children in the village followed in mass. “They like to try and speak English whenever they get a chance. There is an English language institute near the edge of town.” One of the young boys was particularly forthright, speaking in intelligible but broken sentences as he tried to encourage Doxey to buy some jewelry he had for sale. Doxey added with a smile,”I’ve purchased a few things from him before. I don’t mind spending my money on things like this knowing it helps these kids.” He later passed on the sale, offering to reconsider another purchase on his next visit.

After several stops at other shops and the purchase of some locally grown peppers for a dinner of Mexican food back at the fire base, we returned to the propane vendor to complete our sale. This time the owner was there, and the propane tank was ready, full of fuel. “How much?” The interpreter translated the question to the owner who quickly calculated the amount on his calculator. Doxey handed him 1000 Afghani, as the owner quickly handed him back his change. “I hand him 1000 Afghani and he hands me 300 Rupees in exchange. Rupees are Pakistani currency. Many of the transactions here are done in Rupees.”

Our walk back to the vehicles was much the same as when we came into the village. The children continued to follow, making efforts to engage whenever possible. Local villagers looked on, some without reaction, others with a welcome wave, a smile and a greeting for the day. As we approached our truck, a reminder of the power of commerce over politics was painted on the wall… the clam shell of Shell Oil. It was degraded by the elements suggesting a presence farther back than the five years the US has been in Afghanistan. With yet another smile, Doxey added, “I guess we should buy stock in Shell if it has managed to survive here.”

Copyright, Scott Kesterson – 2006

Be Sociable, Share!