Nestled between high mountains on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan, the Korengal Valley has been one of the hardest fought over patches of ground in the War on Terror. 54 Americans have been killed and four Medals of Honor were earned in the valley — or it's immediate vicinity — while the case for a fifth is under review. One was that of the first living recipient of the award since Vietnam: Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta.
Today, the American military rarely moves into the valley, but handpicked Afghan commandos, some trained by the CIA, fight constantly with militants there. The Afghan government maintains offices at the Pech River Valley, the entryway to Korengal. Their police execute raids and patrols in a continuing attempt to shut down or limit the shadow government operating there.
When the American military was there, they faced the same challenges the Afghan forces do today. Some of these dangers are common across Afghanistan, while some only existed in Korengal Valley and the other branches of the Pech River Valley.
The terrain is a nightmare.
Steep mountains, loose shale, thick forests, and open patches of land made the area a nightmare for an occupying force. Combat outposts were built in relatively open areas so that defenders could see approaching militants. However, this meant patrols returning to the base had to cross the open ground, sometimes under heavy small arms fire from nearby wooded areas and houses. The thick trees in the area allowed fighters to attack U.S. forces from cover and concealment.
The attackers would then hide their weapons in the forests and return to the civilian population. The steep hillsides allowed snipers to climb above outposts and fire into the bases as soldiers slept. Loose rock on the steep land led to injuries from trips and falls.
Building new bases — and keeping them resupplied — presented constant challenges.
Tied to the problem of the terrain, engineering in the valley has historically been difficult. To build the infamous Restrepo outpost, soldiers slipped up the hilltop in the night and frantically dug ditches in the dark. Working until dawn, they were barely able to create shallow trenches to lay in before sunlight exposed them to enemy fire. They created the outpost over the following weeks and months, chipping away at the rock and throwing the fragments into bags or Hesco barriers to create walls and fighting positions. Everything in the valley had to be made this way as the hills were too steep to move heavy equipment and there was little dirt or sand to put in the bags and barriers.
Supply was similarly constricted as many vehicles couldn't make it into the hills. Trucks would move through washed out roads to deliver supplies to positions near the bottom of the valley. Getting food, water, and gear to the tops of the hills required either helicopter lifts or infantry carrying it up on their backs.
Its proximity to Pakistan gives the Taliban a cross-border sanctuary.
The Korengal Valley is located on the border with Pakistan in steep mountains and thick forests where it has served as a major conduit for smugglers for decades, especially during Soviet occupation. The Pakistan side of the border is in the tribal region which has historically served as a recruiting and training ground for terrorists. The valley itself is so inaccessible that the Afghan government temporarily gave up on trying to control it, even before the people began a strong resistance.
The civilian population is largely confrontational toward outsiders.
The Americans in the valley found that the Korengalis were even less hospitable to U.S. and NATO forces than those in most of the war torn country. Most of them follow a sect of Islam known for its particularly conservative and hardline attitudes. They also all speak a dialect that not even their neighbors in the Pech River Valley — which Korengal Valley intersects — can understand. In addition, the Korengalis have a history of lumber smuggling and bad blood with other tribes. Meetings between U.S. and Afghan military leaders and tribal elders were generally tense if not confrontational.
The U.S. faced multiple insurgent groups, along with criminal elements.
Most NATO units faced opposition from multiple factions in their regions, but the Korengal Valley was a high priority for both the Jamaat al Dawa al Quran, or JDQ, and Al Qaeda. JDQ is suspected of having connections to Pakistani intelligence and both groups are certainly well-funded. In addition, local insurgencies cropped up under former timber barons who lost family members and money when the Americans moved in.
The Taliban often used human shields in battle.
Though civilians were used as shields in much of Afghanistan, it was constant in Korengal Valley. Women and children were nearly guaranteed to show up on the roof of any house that came under attack from US forces. Vehicles filled with civilians tested checkpoints, forcing soldiers to choose between firing at potentially unarmed civilians or leaving themselves open to a potential suicide vehicle attack. This drastically limited the ability of U.S. forces to engage the enemy.