Eight soldiers and an unknown number of Afghan soldiers and police are dead after an hours-long complex attack on a pair of American outposts in Kamdesh. According to the AP:
Fighting began around dawn Saturday and lasted several hours, said Jamaludin Badar, governor of Nuristan province. Badar said the two outposts were on a hill — one near the top and one at the foot of the slope — flanked by the village on one side and the mosque on the other.
Nearly 300 militant fighters flooded the lower, Afghan outpost then swept around it to reach the American station on higher ground from both directions, said Mohammad Qasim Jangulbagh, the provincial police chief. The U.S. military statement said the Americans and Afghans repelled the attack by tribal fighters and “inflicted heavy enemy casualties.”
For some reason, it takes Lori Hinnant five paragraphs to mention the attack happened in Kamdesh. Since everyone is probably going to compare this attack to the Battle at the Waigal district center in Nuristan from last year, it might be helpful to examine the context surrounding the attack.
The Kamdesh area, along the Landai Sin Valley, was mostly ignored by U.S. forces until 2006, when the U.S. established a PRT in the area. The area was a HiG stronghold, and according to Richard Strand there were rampant rumors that al Qaeda had begun aggressively infiltrating the area. Strand doesn’t note this, but more recently there are widespread rumors that the various campaigns of the Pakistani Army in the NWFP have pushed militants into the area—more than would exist there otherwise. Strand, one of the very best open sources about Nuristan, has lots more data about the rumors surrounding—much of this post will be pulling from his website, though it’ll be supplemented with material from other sources.
Probably the defining conflict in Kamdesh is not between locals and the U.S, but rather between two Nuristani ethnic groups, the Kom and the Kshto. Like almost everywhere else in Afghanistan, this local conflict is over access to natural resources (in this case, water rights), and the conflict serves as a convenient angle for outsiders to leverage influence and power. The Kom tend to be more friendly to HiG, but both communities support to varying degrees extremist mullahs advocating jihad against the U.S. forces in the area.
Strand wonders why the U.S. hadn’t, in 2007, implemented a more robust counterinsurgency strategy in the area. A quick answer would be that it is simply too hard: the main road leading up to Camp Keating is nicknamed “Ambush Alley” because of the high number of IEDs and complex attacks in steep valleys. During its first six months, Camp Keating (then called FOB Kamdesh) faced attacks almost every single day, which dramatically slowed down the pace of operations and practically halted any meaningful construction work.
As I related in a post last week about the prospects for withdrawal from Nuristan, Kamdesh is so dangerous and difficult to work in that the furthest-flung outposts can only be resupplied by helicopter—and even those face small arms fire during supply runs.
The challenge with managing the violence in the area is that, while much of it is performed by outsiders like al Qaeda, most of the HiG fighters are actually locals—a dynamic very similar to southern Kapisa province, where many of the HiG militants in the area are locals either paid to attack U.S. forces or do so simply out of pride for HiG’s role in defeating the Soviet Union.
But persuading the locals to stop attacking is not simply a function of demanding the elders force their young men to stop—ignoring the financial side of things, elders in Nuristani groups tend not to work the same as community leaders elsewhere in Afghanistan. As Schuyler Jones documented, the leaders are simply “Men of Influence,” and not, say, police chiefs or traditional chieftains. When a reporter visited Kamdesh in 2007, he tried to explain it like this:
The elders have limited power. They cannot usually banish the insurgents from their villages, especially if they are locally-born. But they can demand they stop attacking the coalition. They can lead others in their village to decide to not support the insurgents. When foreigners come down off the mountains, which often reach 10,000 feet in this area, and seek shelter in the village, they can tell the security forces. And they can make it socially unacceptable in their village to take money from foreigners to fire on the Americans or the Afghan Army. The elders’ power comes not from the gun but from persuasion.
It’s tough to levy that persuasion when you have, at best, an irregular presence in the area. A friend told me that in Kamdesh proper. the U.S. soldiers do not enter the local village because they struck a deal with the elders that they’d leave it alone in return for no attacks. Obviously, that agreement seems to have broken down. As the Washington Post noted late last month the soldiers in Kamdesh and Kamu (another primary village in the district) do not interact with locals very often—they’re too besieged to do much.
All of this, again, builds the case for pulling out from the area. While Strand is right that Nuristan is a significant infiltration route for fighters coming from Chitral, its geography also creates nice little bottlenecks that can be monitored and managed. Since the elders in the area obviously do not possess sufficient influence to persuade their young men not to attack U.S. forces, it is unclear what could be accomplished without an enormous influx of soldiers—tens of thousands of soldiers to occupy every little nook and cranny that could be used to launch an attack. Greg Jaffe, in his moving account of the Battle of Want, quoted a young soldier just before he died:
“It is almost a lost cause up in Nurestan,” he said flatly. “There needs to be a lot more than just a platoon there if you want to make a big difference.” He thought some more about his frustrating tour, leading the 40-man 2nd Platoon of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. “We killed a few Taliban,” he said, “so I guess that is a success.”
There are two alternatives to building influence and trust among the communities in Nuristan, neither of which involves a massive influx of troops. Influence can be leveraged the same way the Taliban do—through Muslim missionaries, living in the communities and slowly preaching to a new generation. Or, the U.S. and ANSF could take a page from Abdur Rahman, the last outsider to force a significant change in the area. Abdur Rahman besieged multiple communities, killed several thousand men, and took thousands of women and children to be hostages in Paghman, near Kabul. His years-long campaign resulted in the forced conversion of the area to Islam (hence “Nuristan,” or Land of the Enlightened).
As for the attack itself, it poses a strategic conundrum. It’s not clear, as many news stories seem to imply, that the attack was related to General McChrystal’s order to withdraw from the area. Rather, the fighting season is coming to a close, and this is something the HiG guys can take to the bank, and brag about all winter.
That being said, should word spread, it is likely that other bases slated to be shut down might face similar attacks, as militants, emboldened by an American withdrawal, try to press their advantage. They also know it is severely demoralizing to face death right before you can leave an area—the psychological effect of such attacks probably can’t be downplayed as well.
But that doesn’t mean it’s still not a good reason to pull back. Strengthening the bases at Naray, Asadabad, and all the smaller outposts along the Kunar Valley will allow the U.S. to at least contain the militant presence in Nuristan itself. It will suck for the people who live there—though zealous Muslims, most of them really are not crazy militants—but, in a world of limited resources we have to make difficult choices about what is and is not worth defending.
On a personal note, I am sad to see the area being abandoned. Nuristan is one of the most interesting, beautiful places in the world, with a mixture of peoples and cultures totally unique in Central Asia. These are the people who fought off Timur, Babur, and Alexander (literally, not just in the mythography of Afghanistan), and until a century ago had the most unique religion in the world. It is a shame to leave them at the hands of such people, but the costs of remaining there simply do not justify the slim benefits.
Photo: An American soldier photographs the approach to Camp Keating, Kamdesh.