A recurring theme on here is the virtue of strategically withdrawing from some areas of Afghanistan, so we can better focus our attention on parts of the country that are more desperately in need of resources, attention, and people (it is one of, but by no means the only, reasons I oppose partitioning Afghanistan). I’ve made this case for big areas of the northeast, including Nuristan, northern Kunar, and the Pech River Valley. Now, Greg Jaffe has a riveting article out today about how even the soldiers fighting in the Pech Valley want to abandon it:
IN PECH VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN Earlier this year, Lt. Col. Joseph Ryan concluded that his 800-soldier battalion was locked in an endless war for an irrelevant valley.
“There is nothing strategically important about this terrain,” said Ryan, 41, a blunt commander who has spent much of the past decade in combat. “We fight here because the enemy is here. The enemy fights here because we are here.”
Ryan’s challenge for the past several months has been to figure out a way to leave the Pech Valley, home to about 100,000 Afghans, without handing the insurgents a victory. This fall he launched a series of offensives into the mountains to smash Taliban sanctuaries. His goal is to turn the valley over to Afghan army and police units who would work out their own accommodation with bloodied insurgents.
Not to be a grumpy bear, but goooooood luck to that last bit. “These troops are fighting,” Jaffe explains, “so that Afghan officials can figure out a way to coexist with a committed and ideological resistance.”
I’m not really how else to say this, but such an end state sounds remarkably like the set up to a negotiated settlement that accommodates some subset of Taliban demands without compromising some subset of Afghan and American demands. In other words, it is not a pretty end state, but it is a possibly sustainable one—quite unlike the current, massive expenditure in blood and treasure for a slipping stalemate.
Jaffe’s story is a deeply troubling one. The Pech Valley has become incredibly more violent than it was even a year ago: IEDs are both more numerous and more powerful than they ever have been before in the area, and the geography forces U.S. troops into easily-attacked “kill boxes” for ambush. The Afghan soldiers don’t seem to care who wins one way or another: after one particularly nasty attack, in which a 25-year old medic is shot in the forehead and dies, Jaffe notes how angry the young American soldiers are with the Afghans for running away during the fighting (the troops hope to turn over responsibility to those same Afghan forces if they withdraw). Even more worrying: all up and down the Kunar River Valley, and in the Pech Valley as well, soldiers are routinely encountering company-sized insurgent formations, in one case with over 150 militants all shooting down on a single platoon.
This sort of thing didn’t used to happen even a year ago, and I don’t think you can blame it on last year’s closure of the FOBs along the Korengal and in Nuristan. Insurgent formations that big were routine in those areas beforehand, with the bases in place, and were getting worse before those bases were shuttered. This is continuing the trend that was already in place. It might have been made worse by the base closures, but that tells me they didn’t withdraw to sufficiently defensible and appropriate areas, not that withdrawal itself is a bad idea.
There is however, a very obvious and uncomfortable disconnect between what the U.S. wants and what the Afghans in the area are willing to do. MG Campbell, who is responsible for the area, wants to withdraw forces from Pech because it is fundamentally ill-suited to any sort of COIN strategy, according to Jaffe. Yet, Campbell’s superiors, despite 100 fatalities in the valley and tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure projects and rapidly escalating violence, still can’t make up their minds about what to there. It is past time we admit—like the Taliban government before us—that that entire swath of country is uncontrollable with our current resources, outlook, and strategy, and focus our attention on somewhere victory is achievable… like the North.