5 years, 5 months ago
Last week the United States military pulled out of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Six miles long, sparsely populated and of dubious strategic value, the Korengal was the scene of some of the most relentless fighting of the Afghan war. American forces have been there in one form or another since the summer of 2005, when Taliban fighters cornered a four-man Navy Seal team on a nearby mountain and killed three of them. They then shot down a Chinook helicopter with 16 commandos on board. All of them died.
For much of 2007 and 2008, I was an embedded reporter with a platoon of airborne infantry at a remote outpost called Restrepo, which was attacked up to four times a day. Many soldiers had creases in their uniforms from bullets that had brushed them. In one firefight a bullet hit a sandbag six inches from my head.
The psychological pressure was enormous. “I’ve only been here for four months and I can’t believe how messed up I am,” one soldier told me. “I went to the counselor and he asked if I smoked cigarettes and I told him no and he said, ‘Well, you may want to think about starting.’”
There were around 20 men at Restrepo — part of a 150-member unit called Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team — and the possibility of getting overrun by the enemy was openly discussed. The men slept next to their guns and sometimes with their boots on. More than 40 American soldiers have died in the Korengal Valley.
Now, the military has retreated, saying that the valley is too isolated and that the American presence was possibly pushing the locals to side with the Taliban. This raises some questions: If the Korengal was really worth fighting for, why would we ever pull out? Or, conversely, why did we go there in the first place? Like the soldiers at Restrepo, I was looking at the war through a tiny keyhole, and have no way to answer such overarching questions. But I do know that several important points must be acknowledged.
First, a significant proportion of enemy fighters in the Korengal were foreigners who had come to Afghanistan to wage jihad. There were Pakistani cellphone numbers painted on rocks around the valley as a recruiting tool for potential volunteers; there were Arabic graffiti urging local men to join the fight. These foreigners presumably would have fought the Americans wherever they found them; if we had avoided the Korengal they would simply have shifted the battle elsewhere. (To a better place? A worse one? I doubt even the Taliban could say.)
Furthermore, I was told that one of the reasons for establishing a base in the Korengal was to prevent militants from using the valley to stage attacks on the vastly more important Pech River Valley, immediately to the north. The Pech was a major corridor for moving men and supplies, and after American bases were established in the Korengal, attacks at Pech dropped off significantly. The Korengal may not have been important per se, but arguably the Pech was, and there may have been no way to strategically separate the two.
At the beginning of the commentary, Sabastian Junger judges Korengal of dubious strategic value. By the end of the seventh paragraph he has carefully crafted a good case for its unmatched strategic value. Similarly, I said:
… until the places where the religiously-motivated and hard core fighters are taken on head-to-head, his means of rest and recruitment denied him, and his largesse taken away from him, this counterinsurgency cannot be won. While they are unmolested in their favorite places, they can continue to send insurgents into the cities – Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul.
DVIDS published several videos of the dis-assembly of Korengal (here and here), but they aren’t as interesting as one published by al Jazeera which shows the Taliban swarming over the remains of the COP.
So why wasn’t a drone re-tasked to keep watch over the remains of the COP, and monitor the presence of enemy fighters and kill them while congregated in the COP? This is yet another missed opportunity.
On a slightly different front, the Asia Times has an article up by Brian M Downing in which it is suggested that the reason for the insurgency was the presence of U.S. troops. The solution? Withdraw, just like we have done. The culmination of this logic is to withdraw all U.S. forces from everywhere there is global or transnational insurgency, and presto – the fighters will disappear, never to cause problems anywhere.
With idiotic commentaries like this one (and others recently by anti-American Gareth Porter), the Asia Times is turning into a laughingstock, and is increasingly not worth the time, even for canvassing Taliban propaganda (which is the main reason I study this site).
Make no mistake about it. This withdrawal is harmful to U.S. interests.
Prior: Withdrawal from Korengal