By Army Sgt. Amber Robinson
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 8, 2009 - Task Force Chosin soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, have been making a difference in disrupting timber smuggling in this lush area near the Pakistan border. Konar has been a route of transit for smuggling goods from the Korengal Valley into Pakistan, an activity that helps to fund enemy operations. "The enemy funds their operations a number of ways," Army Lt. Col. Mark O'Donnell, Task Force Chosin commander, said. "They smuggle illegal gems, opium and timber."
In the months following the fall of the Taliban, many insurgents fled to Pakistan, where they continue to operate and help to fund insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Various resources that fund weapons for enemy groups operating in Afghanistan are imported across the border.
Timber, O'Donnell explained, is used mainly for expensive, ornate furniture produced exclusively in Pakistan. Before the task force arrived, he added, timber smugglers operated with impunity.
"Mostly, the units before us did not have the troop strength that we have to combat the problem," O'Donnell said.
Although drug and gem smuggling are lucrative ways for the enemy to fund insurgency, timber smuggling is even more lucrative. Most of the timber comes through the Korengal Valley and is then moved down the Konar River to strategic points. It is picked up by trucks and then moved up the Narang Valley through the mountains into Pakistan.
Although the Pakistan border has various checkpoints that monitor traffic, the border is still porous. Trucks carrying the illegal timber can't move through the checkpoints, so the cargo is loaded onto the backs of donkeys and transported across the rough border terrain. Task Force Chosin's unmanned surveillance equipment has photographed and recorded the smuggling procedure on various occasions.
"We have plenty of footage," Army Capt. Nathaniel Miller, commander of the task force's Company D, said. "What we've observed is a well-oiled process. These guys have been doing this for awhile and have their routine down to a science. Although the procedure may seem primitive, it works, and more lumber than we can imagine has been smuggled over the border in this way."
Although trucks are used in certain stages of the smuggling, most of the movement is done via the Konar River with pack mules and donkeys.
"The wood is put into the river, where smugglers ride it like a raft to strategic pick-up sites," Miller said. "The wood is only taken a short distance by truck until it is transferred onto donkeys for the last leg of the route into Pakistan."
Task force soldiers have put up strategic outposts to hinder the timber flow, and they have caused much difficulty for smugglers.
"The outposts have definitely put a dent in the process," Miller said. "Smugglers go so far with the wood and realize they can't move with the same ease. They get to that point and simply dump the timber." Portions of the Narang Valley have become littered with abandoned illegal timber. The timber usually is confiscated and stored in Asadabad, the largest city near the Narang Valley.
Aside from the visible results, other indicators show the task force has slowed the illegal trade, Miller said. "We are also experiencing more focused attacks on our strategic outposts. The enemy is mad that we are putting a stop to this, and are illustrating that through more vicious attacks."
The illegal timber industry has been operational for years, but with smugglers now having Taliban connections, the involvement of NATO International Security Assistance Force troops has been more evident.
"We have met with all of our local Afghan leaders, and all are aware of the problem," O'Donnell said. "It was actually the governor of Konar that brought the blatant timber smuggling activity to our attention once we got here."
As it stands, all money that comes from timber smuggling is spent in Pakistan. The only outcome Afghanistan usually sees from the exploitation of its natural resources is a well-armed and relatively well-funded insurgency, officials said.
"If [the Afghan government] can turn this around and capitalize on the industry, it would not only bring more money to the country, but the cutting could be standardized and the resources protected," O'Donnell said. "Right now, with no regulations, the Korengal's timber could be in danger of being over-cut."
Although many steps must be taken before the problem is solved, O'Donnell said, the troops of Task Force Chosin will continue to respond when called upon.
"Until Afghan officials can get a hold on how to fix this, we'll fix it the best we know how," he said, "and that's with strategic operations. In the future, hopefully, things will be different, but for now we will handle the problem as it is."
(Army Sgt. Amber Robinson serves with the Task Force Spartan public affairs office.)