Abandon Pech to Save It (And Ourselves)

by Joshua Foust on 12/27/2010 · 5 comments

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.

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– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Boris Sizemore December 27, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Joshua I was up there about a week after the attack with Joshua Novak visiting the Provincial Governor.

Kunar is of strategic importance as it is the route into the North for most of the fighters and logistics. Ceding this area to the Taliban is basically going mean Kunar is lost to the Government.

The operation itself rather than being viewed as a failure, is what should be happening all the time. US forces cannot be trapped in the FOBs or COPs. Operations in the field in these mountains should be near constant, not sitting in the FOBs waiting to get hit…

We still have not really partnered in terms of co joined command with the Afghans. Afghans are not calling the shots. The article was clear that Ryan made the decisions and the Afghans were brought in to tag along. Certainly the lack of real “Afghan Led” as opposed to “US Led” would make a real difference. The feed back from the Afghans is that they are rarely included in the planning of missions and their input either local or military is not heard by the ISAF leaders. This is a regular complaint. You can’t expect much more if you are not willing to clap with both hands especially in Kunar.

The good news if there is any…is that the Insurgents are still in the hills and not in the valleys. They are close, but operationss have kept them back to a large extent.

Security is clearly worse all over the country and ISAF needs a radical change to operations and tactics if this next year is not going to a repeat of this year’s fiasco. The key issue is that if you lose Kunar you lose much more, and a change is needed now from Kabul on down.

Anonymous December 28, 2010 at 9:46 am

Good points above from Boris Sizemore. It is distressing to read that we have decided the Pech area is “strategically irrelevant.” I think a quick look at a map, a quick review of historical infiltration routes into Afghanistan, and a cursory understanding of which groups live where in Kunar shows the importance of the area and the feasibility of conducting operations there that give advantage to ISAF. The Kunar and Pech valleys lie astride a major historical infiltration route; they are contiguous valleys that permit an uninterrupted line of communication among them, and can’t be avoided easily by infiltrators; and they are mainly occupied by the Safis, a group that although fractious is in fact a group, and one that can be dealt with, albeit with deference to their preferences and norms. These three things put together mean that making the population of these valleys inimical to the interests of the infiltrating fighters can create a line that is difficult for the enemy to cross; to do so, he must spend nights in the mountains before the valleys and then after crossing them. During those nights up in the mountains, the insurgents are vulnerable to our efforts to find and attack them. So, this is a feasible way to do business up there. I guess the key to feasibility, though, is tucked into one of the sentences above: “deference to their preferences and norms.”

The second question is about importance of operating up there. It depends. If we think all the fighters infiltrating through or stopping off to fight are locals without significant outside support, then perhaps this is an area we can leave without worry. However, if we think the fighters up there include significant numbers of foreigners who harbor wider ambitions than Kunar per se, then withdrawing from these areas will merely make things worse — physically, by permitting them free reign; and morally, by encouraging others. If the fighters to whom we seem to be abandoning Kunar intend to sit quietly in Kunar and return to subsistence farming, then it seems like a good idea to leave. However, if that’s not what we think they will do, then it seems like a really bad idea to leave.

M Shannon December 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

There is nothing “strategic” in Afghanistan. That is the big part of the problem. There is nothing there worth the effort of trying to hold it. The war is a series of tactical efforts without an achievable goal (or the explanation how this all will benefit the US) and in direct contradiction of the doctrine that supposedly guides the US military.

Does anyone think that the resources already sunk into Pech have had a positive effect? Does anyone believe that more resources would provide anything like a cost effective solution to how to control people who would rather fight than submit.

Pech doesn’t border Pakistan so now we’re down to talking about stopping infiltration by people who are already in Afghanistan. BTW if you want to see the Taliban try tea time in the Asadabad bazaar …they’re the ones wearing Air Jordans.

anan December 29, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Shannon, there is one thing strategic about Afghanistan from an international perspective. Afghanistan is a way to influence the Pakistani civil war. Sadly this is the vast majority of the prism through which probably ever country in the world percieves Afghanistan. :-(

It is far cheaper to generate Afghan capacity over the long run than pay for direct ISAF operations, something even you might agree with. :-)

You might be right on Pech, even though Boris Sizemore [who I respect greatly] and Joshua Novak, the governor of Kunar and President Karzai disagree.

Transition to ANSF means that the combined ANSF/ISAF combat capability will be limited in the short run as ANSF capacity comes online. I believe this means that ANSF/ISAF need to concentrate their forces in the most pro GIRoA, pro ANSF, pro ISAF/UNAMA and anti Taliban population centers in the short run, and gradually expand outward in the long run.

While there is pro ANA sentiment in Kunar. pro GIRoA, pro ANP, anti Taliban sentiment doesn’t seem high enough to merit a major resource commitment in the short run. Much of the Taliban there are part of the broader Siraj grouping [Ilyas Kashmiri, TTP, TNSM, LeT Peshawar Shura] or Hekmatyur [who strikes me as the type of person Karzai should negotiate with.] Seems like the foreign Taliban in particular will so offend Kunar locals [especially the Safis], that the combined partnership ANSF/ISAF force that liberates them in 2012 or early 2013 will be warmly received.

Why shouldn’t precious limited ISAF/ANSF resources be focused on other areas that like them better?

Be curious to hear the counter arguement.

I have been told that the Safis are unusually pro GIRoA, and pro Karzai in particular, with what anecdotally seems like substantial participation in the ANA [the 42% of the ANA that is Pashtun does not represent all Pashtuns but over represents some Pashtun subgroups]. Is this true of the Safis in Kunar near the Pech valley?

Anonymous and Boris, I don’t favor abondoning Kunar, but an economy of force operation to disrupt the enemy versus full pop centric COIN.

I understand that 2nd Bde, 201st ANA Corps, still wants to fight the enemy in Kunar. Is there a way for 2nd Bde, 201st ANA Corps to disrupt the enemy in Nuristan and Kunar with only 4 combat infantry battalions [assuming 4 combat companies each, rest/refit/retrain downtime], freeing up the rest of 201st ANA Corps for other areas? Or is this too optimistic?

To really simultaneously have a go at Kunar and Pech valleys and Kunar/Nuristan more broadly would really need two combat bdes HQs [8 combat infantry bn HQs + 32 combat infantry companies.] Where will they come from?

Nangarhar matters far more than Kunar/Nuristan, in my view. At least Laghman is anti Taliban [not that they like ISAF or the GIRoA all that much either]

Boris is right on with the comment about ISAF disrespecting 201st ANA Corps and conducting true combined partnership embedded partnering with them. Part of the problem, Boris, is that 201st ANA has gotten a bad rap [excluding 3-201, which has been remaned 3-111.] A former Marine told me that 201st ANA Corps has deteriorated since CJTF-82/RC-East kicked out their Marine ETTs. Too many ISAF think true joint strategy/planning/operations with 201st ANA Corps adds too much unnescessary risk. A dangerous and wrong headed attitude.

Capt. Monkey January 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Josh- you are still wrong. I love you brother, and you’re wrong.

First, I’ve spent more time in the Pech Valley than Greg Jaffe, LTC Ryan, or MG Campbell. I spent 9 months in the valley (and offshoots including the Korengal and Waygal) in 2006. Additionally, I’ve had troops in the valley four months this year (September-December). I mention this because it provides me perspective–not authority.

In 2003-2004 the entire Kunar river valley and Pech river valley were relatively tame. My good friend John was an SF medic in the region at the time and tells me about how he, two other US soldiers, and 10 ANA soldiers held Asmar. Now, A/2-327IN is completely overwhelmed (although that could be the lackluster performance by the company and battalion more than enemy situation).

In 2006-2007, it seemed that the fight was in Kunar. COL Cavoli, former commander of 1-32IN and battle-space owner for N2K has corrected me privately that the region was most assuredly not the RC-East decisive op during this time, except for during Operation Mountain Lion in Mar-Apr 2006 (Essentially, the infil phase for the push into the Korengal Valley).

Now, we’ve been pushed back out of the Waygal, out of Kamdesh, out of the Korengal, and we’re talking about abandoning the Pech in general? Bob Brier (Egyptologist at LIU) used to talk about how the Egyptians were never defeated; they just won battles closer and closer to home. We’re just winning our battles closer and closer to Jalalabad/Kabul.

As far as strategic importance of the Pech valley goes: if you’re a PC-Coindanista, Pech District (one of several in the valley including Dara-i-Noor, and Chapa Darrah) comprises 25% of the population of Kunar. More people live in Dara-i-Pech district than in Asadabad. Maybe we’re pulling into the wrong direction…

Now, I no longer consider myself a PC-Coindansta, although I do see a place for pop-centric operations. It’s been claimed that the insurgency in the Pech is localized (I’ve heard this about the Korengal, and in Logar-Wardak the Tangi). That’s absolute hogwash. The insurgency in Kunar in general, and in the Pech in particular, is the most diverse in all of Afghanistan. AQ, HiG, LeT, TB, TNSM, TTP, JeM are all present. My guess is that a look into the biometrics collected during the recent operations in the area of TF Bulldog would demonstrate a large sampling of these groups as well as significant presence of fighters from the Arab Peninsula and Pakistani ISI cadre. Similar, as you move from the Pech towards Pakistan (regardless of which Pass you choose, whether it be Ghowardesh, Ganjigal, or Ghaki), I’m willing to bet there are significant training camps for all of these groups in Shigal (negligible US presence), Dangam (infamous A/2-327IN’s battlespace with a vehicle patrol base in the pass and the COP in Asmar), Ghaziabad, even Mara Wara (significantly more US presence).

These camps exist for several reasons. First, these are areas that we’ve neglected to secure. The economy of force argument does not fall on deaf ears, though. I understand we’re strapped for resources. I’ve been on the “sucking” side, trying to cover an area of operations that far exceeded my capabilities—at least my capabilities if I wanted to be effective. Second, the terrain favors dismounted, guerrilla tactics. As you all are well aware, this is hard terrain. It is mountainous, constricted, rocky. It is a great place for guerrillas fighting in Paktia, Paktika, or Wardak to learn small unit tactics. Third, we’re lazy. We’ve ceded the high ground to the enemy. We stick to mounted movement in the valleys between FOBs (mostly in the low ground) giving the enemy nearly unrestricted maneuver in the mountains. Camp Wright, Camp Fiaz, FOB Joyce in Sarkani, COP Penich in Khas Kunar, Camp Blessing in Manugay, COP Monti in Asmar—where are they? They’re not on top of the mountains. Even COP Michigan in Kandagal, COP Able Main, COP Honaker-Miracle—they’re all in the low ground. I wonder how many soldiers currently in the area have taken the high ground, have humped up the mountains and controlled key-terrain. Fourth, we’ve forgotten what key terrain is. We’ve begun calling districts key terrain. We’ve applied a tactical term, operationally, and ultimately forgotten what it means at the tactical level. This goes back to the third reason—we’re lazy. We’ve ceded land to the enemy for him to control. Sure, we’ve maintained small presences at OP Pride Rock, above Kandagal. We’ve maintained OP Bari Alai above Gewi and Jalelah. We’ve also under resourced them to the point that they exist as little more than reconnaissance platforms—sadly, we’ve also under resourced our action arms.

When we entered Afghanistan in 2001, we focused on Khowst, Paktika, and Kunar—to a large extent—because they were the home provinces for AQ training camps. AQ trained for combat in these remote regions. If AQ remains a threat (it does), or if TB, HiG, LeT, TNSM, TTP, of JeM have become threats (they are) to our security either in Afghanistan or home (M Shannon—I’m more concerned about threat in Afghanistan) then Kunar still matters. A large number of insurgent fighters train in Kunar (and the Pech in particular) before moving to other parts of Afghanistan. They will continue to do so, if we’re not there.

Final point on if the Pech matters. It matters because it is used as a way-point for operations elsewhere. A gentleman that worked with you at NGIC reminded me that they no long transition through Nuristan or the Pech into the Panjshir and into Kabul. Nevertheless, a withdrawal from the Pech increases freedom of maneuver for the enemy. It is unfeasible and quite frankly impossible to shut down every possible border crossing in the porous Kunar province. Withdraw just increases their options for movement through the region.

So, in short, the Pech valley remains operationally important—if we consider the operational level of war to encompass the Afghan theater of operations. (M Shannon, you see how I side-step the strategic significance question there?).

Josh, you mention that IED activity in the Pech has increased in the past year. I would contest that. Between Asadabad and Nangalam, the road is paved and generally safe from IEDs. Sure, there are the occasional IEDs placed in a culvert. It is nothing compared to the IED threat in 2005 when the Pech river road was the most heavily seeded road in all of Afghanistan (thanks Abu Ikhlas). There are significant numbers of IEDs west of Camp Blessing between Nangalam and Recha Lam. This isn’t due to a change in the security situation as much as it is a continuation of the practice of not patrolling out that way. We (US forces) have neglected Chapa Dara and the western Pech for far too long. Battlespace owners do not “own” their battlespaces, in that they do not patrol those areas. Further, over-reliance on technology led to reliance on the PTDS (Persistent Threat Detection System) to catch emplacers west of Blessing. Unfortunately, during August-September, the PTDS was not operational (unknown to US forces) resulting in ample opportunity to seed the road. And seed it they did. Any significant spike in IED activity in the Pech is west of Blessing, and we have no one to blame but ourselves for it.

I wonder what happens to the Pech in 6 months. Will we do like we’ve done in other parts of the country (Arghandab, Tangi) and return in a few months to find a well-entrenched enemy that is better prepared for us?

A withdrawal from the Pech is ill-fated. The enemy will follow us out—like they did from the Korengal. They will capitalize on the freedom of maneuver and ability to conduct training and operations (like they did in Wata Pur). Wata Pur, I think, offers a unique case study. It’s in the Pech Valley, it was subject to CT operations, it was subject to LTC Ryan’s clearing operations. Who would have thought that Wata Pur would have been a nasty place? I’m sure I can think of a few people. The CT groups failed to neutralize any real significant threat. Many of the key leaders operating in the region have been there since 2003. The conventional forces failed to resource sufficiently well. While TF Bulldog (and Abu Company) was successful, it is a testament to the tenacity of the soldiers on the ground and not anything else. Two platoons were dropped in the valley with an insufficiently planned exfil, resulting in significant coalition casualties.

Finally, while 100 casualties are tragic, to use them as justification to cede territory to an enemy is pretty weak. It’s not just you. We do it in the service all too frequently. It churns my stomach to hear senior leaders say that our job is “to bring the boys home,” or any such bularky. Our job, as a military, is to win the wars that our civilian leadership assigns us. Again every casualty is tragic. I’ve written more letters of condolence than I ever thought I would, or wanted. It sucks. And, minimizing casualties is important. It’s important for the collective psyche of the soldiers, it’s important for the collective psyche of the country. It’s not tantamount to a successful operation, though. Please, stop using that as justification to give up.

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