One of my favourite films of all time has to be The Man Who Would Be King, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine…a 70s film based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story.
The film (and the short story) was set in Kafiristan, a land in the mountains and valleys in an area of Eastern Afghanistan and North Western British India (today’s Pakistan).
Back in the 1880s and into the early 1900s, Muslim tribes fought the tribes of Kafiristan in order to turn them too into Muslims. They were called Kafirs, or the unenlightened, hence the name of the region by Muslims. However, they were eventually turned by the sword into the enlightened…and the region then became known as today’s Nuristan. Noor (originally an Arab word) meaning light, or in this case enlightened.
Today it’s an Afghan Province in the North East of the country. The north side borders China, the East borders Pakistan…all being in the Hindu Kush mountains…and extremely beautiful.
However, back in 2007 I wasn’t going there for it’s beauty.
Instead, I was going as a security adviser to a small TV news media team from CNN International. We would be the first Western TV news network to go to Nuristan, we would be travelling as an embed with US forces there.
We were going for just around 2 weeks, beginning in Western Nuristan, then going to an incredibly dangerous location in Eastern Nuristan called Kam Desh. Not that any part of Nuristan isn’t dangerous.
From Bagram airbase north of Kabul, to Kunar Province and on to Nuristan by Chinook helicopter. Every 20 seconds or so the landscape of Afghanistan changes when you’re flying over it.
After “hedgehopping” to Kunar Province and spending the night, we moved to Nuristan in a smaller Blackhawk helicopter as part of a two heli flight with an additional attack heli escort.
Myself keeping a keen eye on the door gunner’s reaction…fingers and toes crossed. After all it’s just a soft skin vehicle that we’re flying in.
Once in Western Nuristan, we joined US military patrols who were trying their best with limited resources to dominate the ground, yet at the same time, win the locals over with their military reconstruction projects. The lads were terrific, it was an absolute pleasure to be with them, yet I couldn’t see for the life of me, just how they could stabilize a mountainous region like Nuristan, with the limited numbers that they had, and the fact that the Nuristanis are notoriously suspicious of outsiders …I was feeling extremely vulnerable.
A soldier uses his scope to check out the ground ahead of us.
A day spent around 6-8000ft patrolling and dominating an area in Western Nuristan. The landscape and the people are absolutely stunning…the threat not so stunning!
Another day, another area, another patrol (this time by vehicle), and yet another stunning landscape.
The people of Nuristan have their own language. They don’t want intrusion, even from the next valley. The Russians found it extremely hard to sustain themselves there back in the 80s…I just can’t see the Americans, with the best will in the world, doing any different.
I love kids…I used to be one! Wherever I go in the world, they are always the innocent. No one is born a bad person, that badness comes later, if at all.
Nuristani children playing, yet intrigued by our presence. I hope nothing happens, the place is paradise, no doubt about it. Beautiful landscape, beautiful people.
The US military were constructing a school, yet there was no talk of teachers, no talk of furniture or books, and no talk of just how the students will get there, and when there, how will they be secure.
Patrolling through the village.
What a landscape…why does there need to be war here…it’s stunning, my camera’s working overtime.
I took this photograph of a road being built like it was in another time…what an eye opener. River rocks the size of rugby balls to set the foundations. The workforce and money was put up by Pakistan. The Taliban types left them to continue with construction (for a while anyway) as it wasn’t a US military project.
This man watched me watching him watching me. It says everything about the Taliban saying of “you may have the watches…but we have the time!”
After a week in the West of the Province, we moved by heli and escort to the East, closer to the Pakistan border…to a place called Kam Desh.
The further we flew, the deeper the valleys, the closer the mountain sides. A shepherd boy could simply toss a stone into our rotors…feeling even more vulnerable now.
What a landscape, you could hide a battalion of troops here…forever. Everywhere you look, there are tiny communities living within a splash of green.
I just couldn’t count the many side re entrants that came into the valley that we were flying up. Every one of them had some form of small farming community living off of their terraced fields, next to crystal clear running water, and their homes built from wood and rocks teetering on the edge of cliffs.
Living on the edge…it’s life on the more rugged and sheer cliff faces of Eastern Nuristan.
No…this is living on the edge…the extremely vulnerable US forward operating base at Kam Desh.
The heli lowered itself into the valley floor. All I could see was the mountain edges on both sides…very very close to the rotors. We landed on the side of the river bank of a fast flowing river. We were signalled to get out and clear the blades. Soldiers on the ground had eyes out on stalks…I’d never seen anything like it. We huddled at the side of the river until the heli went back up and headed south with it’s top cover. We were screamed at by a young NCO to follow him…running. We had a lot of kit…to shoot TV news.
What lay before my eyes shocked and stunned me. Twenty three years in the British military, thirteen years at that stage coming to war zones as a commercial security adviser…but this was something that was incredibly difficult to take in. A flimsy and vulnerable platoon sized location, sitting at a river junction at the bottom of steep mountains…looking like it’s just waiting to get rolled over.
The young soldiers were hyper…and no wonder. I couldn’t believe that any senior officer would even think about putting his men there, let alone actually go ahead with it.
One of the militia from the valley, a Nuristani, paid and tasked to help look after the US post. I’ve been all over Afghanistan by this time (07), but I’ve never seen and met such in your face unfriendly individuals, including in the “hardened” areas of Helmand and Kandahar, Paktika and Khost. These people didn’t even like the people from the opposite valley. I could understand their mindset to a point, given their cruel history, however they were definitely not to be trusted in my mind.
I asked one of the officers who was up on the high ground covering the base? He said, no worries, we pay the local militia to cover us. But we’re looking at hopefully sending up our own troops at some point. Some point…my immediate thought was how about in the next 5 minutes?
Carcasses of Russian armour, turned up on their side to provide some cover from attack.
A Nuristani family sitting on the river’s west bank just yards from the southern edge of the base. They’re from a small community, again just yards from the base to the north.
Littered all around Kam Desh were memories as to just why the US military should NOT be in this valley.
A winding track going from north to south from Kam Desh all the way to the Province of Kunar. Looking at this landscape from the heli on our way back to “safety,” was quite a relief. Leading up to the last bend on the right of the photo is a long mule train, seen as tiny specks in the distance…carrying what I wonder?
The small location of Kam Desh…FOB,COP what ever it needs to be called, was nothing short of a complete sham by filthy senior officers wearing their political hats before their military ones in my mind.
In late 06 Kam Desh was established and administered by dirt track (the one above). After attacks and ambushes, it was deemed necessary to only administer the base from the air…a massive restriction and risk. Hence why the only way to get there for us in 07 was by heli. It became known as COP Keating, named after a young officer who would be killed after the track gave way under the weight of his armoured vehicle.
For those of you reading this and are interested in the location and it’s story, Google “Battle of Kam Desh.” After we left there, 8 US soldiers were killed and well over 20 wounded, when the location was almost over run completely. Two American soldiers received the highest award for bravery. Numerous local police and militia were killed, wounded or left their posts.
It’s all out there on the web, there’s lots to read and learn about. A film of the battle has now been made, I believe by the same name.
I just want to finish by saying that I was honoured to spend only a short time there with such young brave men. I was shocked and stunned at what I saw at Kam Desh. But I had a choice…a choice to leave to safety with the rest of the TV news crew once we achieved the aim of news gathering (of a sort). These young men however had no choice. Quite simply…they had to remain, and face fight after fight…most days and most nights, until eventually, the enemy had enough gained intelligence and bravado to walk in through the doors and take it out.
These young men and their young officers are no doubt the bravest of the brave. “There’s is not to reason why, there’s is but to do…or die.” As the old saying goes.
It not only angers me to think of the loss of such good young men in their prime, but the community living yards away up the valley, took the full wrath of the answer to the attack. An aircraft came and dropped a 2000lb bomb on them, apart from levelling the base.
The photo of the gorgeous wee kids with the adult males by the river…what of them?
War can be hell…but when the military leadership sells themselves to politicians who demand total fiction from their troops…then it’s time to stand up for those men, and other men and women like them.
But for all these individuals at Kam Desh…well, it’s way too late now.
It’s been over 11 years since I was at Kam Desh…10 years since it was taken out, and I still think about the place a lot. Too much maybe, as it angers me greatly. Brave young American men, and beautiful Nuristani families, in a stunning part of the world…all completely smashed and wasted…for what exactly?
One thought on “A MODERN DAY JOURNEY TO NURISTAN, AFGHANISTAN.”
Great writing Bob and fantastic photography