Try to find Alasay.
At the tail end of March, a French-led NATO force initiated a major operation in the Alasay Valley of Kapisa Province in Afghanistan. In the initial push, dozens of “Taliban” fighters died. If you’re fond of French, Paris Match wrote a fairly riveting account of the first round of operations there.
Several friends of mine happened to have witnessed the past several weeks of operations there. With their permission, I’ll post some of their thoughts and observations of what is going on below the jump.
“We have a non-US NATO force in the lead as the ISAF maneuver element,” one observer noted with obvious pride, “we have the ANA holding the ground, we have the locals welcoming the troops, we have tons of meetings in Alasay, Kapisa and Kabul about stabilizing the district, we have Taliban reconciling, we have local elders telling the TB to leave, we have villagers and officials in neighboring areas noting an immediate improvement in security. This is text book clear, hold build and it will be very hard for the TB to reassert themselves if we stay.”
Curiously, outside the French press (some of which is linked to above), there is almost no coverage of what’s going on there. As Old Blue would agree, this is not a new problem. I searched the CJTF101 homepage for information about the push to retake Alasay, but there was almost nothing there. Alasay is a strategic goldmine: it lies along a primary infiltration route into and out of Pakistan, it provides easy access to Kabul in an easily defensible primary valley (there are two other valleys in Alasay District almost no Coalition Forces enter), and it is mostly populated by a Pashto-speaking ethnic minority very few people have ever studied—the Pashai.
Christian Bleuer discussed a bit about who they are in a post last Spring, though there are some addendums. I sat down with a group of Pashai elders in late January, and asked about the decades-old academic work on the Pashai. They directly contradicted Ovéson’s work: rather than being simply a linguistic group, these Pashai claim that they are their own separate ethnicity. My colleagues who have been trying to catalog and make contact with the Pashai throughout Kapisa have noted this as well. What’s more, those Pashai elders claimed that their status as merely a language was an artificial creation of King Zahir Shah, who forced them to register as Pashai-speak Safi Pashtuns—it wasn’t until Daoud, the main elder said, that they were able to gain recognition as a separate ethnicity.
All of that is very interesting, and definitely worth additional research. Of much more immediate interest is what, exactly, events in Alasay represent. In early 2008, shortly after the Mujahideen Day Parade Attack in Kabul last April, the government of Afghanistan decided to reassign the ANA and ANP who had been guarding the Alasay Valley to Kabul. The result was pure disaster: during the course of 2008, Alasay changed from a valley some U.S. troops could enter at times unmolested, quickly devolved into a hornet’s nest of RPG ambushes.
Since mid-2008, there has been precious little activity in Alasay—while in 2007, the Coalition made a valiant effort to sweep Alasay and the Tagab, for months only sporadic patrols dared breach the valley’s entrance. The insurgents there had almost total freedom of movement.
No longer. A brand new COP—Combat Outpost—became operational last month, and since then the French, ANA, and U.S. mentors have seen quite a bit of combat. “There appears to be an attempt to have a coordinated follow-up on the non-K side,” one of my colleagues told me. “There have been several HA drops, a MECAP and numerous meetings so far. The ANA has two COPs a couple OPs and a supporting position dug in. It looks like they’ll stay.” In English? The Coalition seems to be focusing on the non-fighting portion of their mission: distributing Humanitarian Assistance (sometimes food, sometimes clothes, blankets, or shoes), setting up temporary free medical clinics, and holding meetings with the elders and other leadership. The Afghan National Army has set up several observation posts and combat stations, along with the logistics to support them.
If this becomes a permanent thing, it will have an enormous effect on the insurgency in Central Afghanistan. Word on the street is that already, dozens of Taliban fighters have made the short trip to Kabul to reconcile with the government and drop out of the insurgency. It is a remarkable reversal: the Taliban literally occupied the Alasay District Center for nearly a solid year but they were driven back at the cost of one French solider. After a year’s absence, local elders are now holding almost daily shuras with the ANA and whatever western troops happen to be nearby.
So far, three weeks into the campaign to retake the Alasay Valley, things appear to be on track. That French soldier’s sacrifice will hopefully be honored by the commitment to stay, protect the people who live there, and keep pushing the Taliban and other insurgents back from the area. This is real progress, and it might even be permanent progress instead of the rather ephemeral glimmers of hope that have so far characterized the counterinsurgency so far.