Last year, I endorsed the idea of withdrawing from indefensible areas within Afghanistan:
However, in a world without infinite resources (ahem), we realistically must decide which places to abandon and which to focus on. In that sense, abandoning Nuristan makes a lot of sense. Much of the U.S.’s activity in that area has been misplaced and poorly focused. The retaking of Bargimatal several months ago didn’t make much sense—the area holds no real strategic value, we just did it for pride.
And indeed it does not, though it is interesting to see how, even post-American withdrawal, the insurgents can’t seem to do much more than hold remote districts for a while before the government chases them away—at horrifying cost to the locals, of course, but the U.S. was not able to seriously affect the balance of power through its presence.
Going a bit further south, into Kunar, it is trickier. David Axe reported earlier this year that the soldiers working in Kunar have had a hard time making any progress against the insurgency, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, they are making many of the same missteps and mistakes—though unintentional—that their predecessors have made over the last five years or so. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that things aren’t exactly swimming with success there.
U.S. troops have already withdrawn from the Korengal Valley, a hornet’s nest of nastiness that suffered from well-meaning meddlers trying to impose an inappropriate political-economic model on an area that never gave its consent (for example, the targetting of timber smugglers). The Korengalis pretty obviously didn’t want our “help,” such as it was, and made that abundantly clear until we withdrew and wished them good luck. And indeed, there is precedent for needing to tread lightly when imposing government “control” on these places—the 1945 Safi Rebellion, which was arguably King Zahir Shah’s greatest challenge during his rule (aside from, obviously, his own cousin’s coup in 1963), grew from this general area, over a dispute about the method through which the King would conscript young men into the Army. The Safi elders—and while the Korengalis are not Safis, the sentiment is widespread—felt the King wasn’t respecting their wishes and concerns enough. So they revolted—violently (the king responded with greater violence, spreading formerly wealthy families throughout the country in internal, impoverished, exile).
So what of the Pech Valley? Stars and Stripes reports:
Now American commanders are struggling to assess the value of trying to hold this isolated valley in the hostile Kunar province. Many wonder if it wouldn’t be better to pull out of the Pech, too.
“I ask myself the same question,” said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, 101 Division commander of all Regional Command-East. “I don’t think the time is right. At some point, I have to figure out what we can sustain here.”
Insurgents in the Pech are outgunned by the long reach of U.S. artillery, mortars at every base and air power that rattles the rigid mountainsides. But they have the terrain and the fear of the people, ensuring their complicity.
I could be mistaken in this, but the Pech Valley’s biggest strategic value is as a supply line into the Korengal and central Nuristan Valleys—places where there is a minimal, if any U.S. presence. In that sense, there’s no reason to cling to the Pech Valley, whose geography confines ground movement to a narrow patch of land along the Pech River, making IEDs and complex ambushes relatively easy. The U.S. likes to portray the population there as cowed into submission by the militants, but the real picture is normally not that simple: often the locals resent both groups as outsiders, and simply make a rational choice to prefer physical safety over material betterment.
Given the extreme difficulties of pacifying in a reasonable manner the narrow valleys of northern Kunar, one must wonder: at what point does it stop making sense to hold ground? The word “retreat” carries justifiably negative connotations, but I’m really curious at what point the costs outweigh the benefits of remaining in an area. It’s difficult to make the case that our presence in the Pech Valley has made things safer or more prosperous for the locals, though I will happily retract the statement if anyone who’s been there recently can attest otherwise. Similarly, the Pech Valley has always been isolated and kind of a backwater—it is not the same kind of “hold at any cost” territory as, say, Jalalabad or Herat or even Kandahar (don’t get me started on our Baghdadification of that place).
So, while it would be sad if we had to withdraw—retreat—from the Pech Valley, much more so for the locals who have to deal with the insurgents than for poor America’s pride, I’m scratching my head at what the downsides are. I would guess that, after an initial period of reprisals, the overall level of violence would die down; the IEDs in the road would certainly stop. Daily life would no longer be interrupted by air assaults and mortar fire.
So help me out, dear readers: why should we stay in northern Kunar?