Strategic Repositioning

by Joshua Foust on 2/25/2011 · 28 comments

The NYT reports on the final pull-out from Pech:

The withdrawal from the Pech Valley, a remote region in Kunar Province, formally began on Feb. 15. The military projects that it will last about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to the province’s more populated areas. Afghan units will remain in the valley, a test of their military readiness.

In a way, this will be more than a test. Our ultimate goal for every part of the country, whether Panjshir or Marjah, is to leave competent Afghan forces in our wake so we can withdraw responsibly. It is, in many ways, the only real strategy we have left, since the state-building that should be accompanying it remains embarrassingly negligent. Pech also isn’t the only place we’re pondering this. The French are trying this in Sarobi district of Kabul provinceᾹan area of acute emotional reaction in France because of all the casualties they’ve taken in the area. Sarobi, however, has been relatively calm as of late, so there is something of a push to declare it a success and hand over responsibility to the Afghans.

Sarobi hasn’t seen much violence in the last six months. There are appropriate concerns over why that is, including the political savvy of local militants who might just want to wait out the French until the area is open again. It is also a short drive from both Kabul and Bagram, meaning if something does go wrong help is very close by. There is a sense that the area has been “won” by the French, so therefore it is an appropriate time to handover the area to the Afghans, who will maintain that win.

Pech is a harder decision to make. It is remote and difficult to get to, either by land or air. There hasn’t been a reduction of violence in recent months. In fact, the network of river valleys centered on Pech are probably the most violent in the country: the Waigal Valley (where the Want base was attacked), the Korengal, Watapor. The only area nearby that’s been worse is Kamdesh, in Eastern Nuristan. Even so, there is a lot of sense-talking in the decision to leave:

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

This is true of many areas in Kunar and Nuristan. Our biggest mistake there was not enabling those communities to be left alone. We insisted on meddling, on remaking them into little extensions of a Kabul they don’t like and didn’t want. Rather than providing security to the people and allowing them to behave normally, we tried to impose a government that didn’t function. It was disaster.

Now, just because abandoning Pech is a good decision from a strategic perspective (I’ve certainly argued so, see here and here), that doesn’t mean it won’t come without cost. Costs are the issue here: the U.S. does not have limitless resources to throw at all problems, and frankly given the degradation in conditions in securable, accessible, and previously safe areas, we should refocus our resources on battles that can be won and secured quickly.

There is a danger in Pech that the Afghan forces will be unable to hold the area and it will become a sanctuary for insurgents&#8212 a crucial corridor for movement and smuggling. And Afghan police and Army officials themselves have doubts about the wisdom of leaving them in charge of security for the area—a concern that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.

The strategic calculus of withdrawing from Pech is, however, very clear. Within the next three or four years, the U.S. will have to turn over responsibility for the country to the Afghans and transition to serving as a backup, rather than a main force. This means Afghans need to get used to controlling their own territory for once, however imperfectly and with whatever doubts and fears everyone might have. Northern Kunar will never be a central front of the war, and the costs—in terms of people, resources, money, and attention—that holding onto a narrow slice of the valley imposed were intolerable on any medium time frame.

Pulling out just makes sense, in other words: it is a chance to see how well the Afghans do on their own, while allowing the U.S. military to refocus its increasingly limited resources on the parts of the war that will probably be decisive as the 2014 drawdown approaches. This will be a difficult process to watch, but it’s important to go through with it now, rather than in a rush when we’re forced to by time and politics.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

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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{ 28 comments }

M Shannon February 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm

At times in recent years Pech accounted for 25% of all the insurgent initiated incidents in eastern region. A US withdrawal will have the primary effect of reducing the reporting of these incidents and will help to give the impression that insurgent activity is down.

There is no way Afghan forces will control Pech and it is certainly not the place to start experiments to see if they’re up to it. There are lots of entire provinces that should be turned over first before the toughest nut.

The move from CT and security in Kabul to nation building across the country was a mistake and we need to cut our loses quickly. What should have been a punitive campaign (which failed in its primary mission) coupled with support for our “allies” has turned into a massive boondoggle. A gradual and quiet withdrawal of the bulk of our forces is in order.

I’m all for withdrawing from the back country over the entire country. There is little sense in spending billions playing wack-a-mole in the mountains. For the time being we should be cutting costs, sending excess folks home, concentrating on improving security & infrastructure in the cities and securing major paved roads, turning over security in the north, west, central and central highlands to the GOA this year and explaining very clearly to “our” Afghans that they had better start taking the fight to the enemy and clean up their acts or we might not be around for the next election.

Our goal should be to remove all conventional combat troops and basic trainers by Jan 2014 leaving a SOF/ air contingent to continue to hunt AQ and an advanced traning cadre.

Joshua Foust February 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I agree. One thing I didn’t mention here, as I’m still unsure how to argue it, is that the exact same logic that demands withdrawal from Nuristan and big chunks of Kunar also demands withdrawal from Nimroz, Farah, and Helmand.

RScott February 25, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Based on the various media reports, many of the Afghan army people in Helmand, at least are from the northern alliance ethnic groups and are certainly unacceptable to the local Pashtuns…many of whom were conscripted by the Taliban to fight them in the late 90s. In Helmand, long-term contacts there have been suggesting for some years that if we pull out, the “Taliban” would likely be back in control within a month or so. And for areas like cash-cropping central Helmand, it could likely be negotiated to allow reconstruction aid to continue in the region which would in fact be a counter-narcotics program to get the farmers back to cultivating their traditional cash crops which they would prefer. But such a program would require completely redirecting the present failed program in the region and instead focus on the obvious….like supporting and expanding the cotton industry.

M Shannon February 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Negotiations already take place between the Taliban and the people working on development projects. Projects normally don’t get started without Taliban permission obtained through a bribe, extortion or simply the local Taliban commander “granting” his permission. Most US military & USAID people don’t realize or won’t admit that the local village has negotiated with the Taliban for permission to do a project. The presence of ISAF combat troops doesn’t appear to play a positive role in any of this.

As for the counter-narcotic effect of development- opium needs water. In much of the south and east you can grow four crops per year in the lowlands. Three of food and one of opium will feed your family and allow you to bury some opium for a rainy day.

Johny Matrix February 25, 2011 at 9:02 pm

“Most US military & USAID people don’t realize or won’t admit that the local village has negotiated with the Taliban for permission to do a project. The presence of ISAF combat troops doesn’t appear to play a positive role in any of this.”

Is this your opinion or have you actually heard this happen? If so, I really don’t think anyone can engage in a sensible argument with you.

Johny Matrix February 25, 2011 at 9:15 pm

I apologize after reading the thread, I was under the assumption you were speaking about Kunar/Nuristan…my bad.

Burk February 25, 2011 at 1:22 pm

It is pretty rich for the Pakistanis to complain about “reverse safe havens” in the NYT story!

Anyhow, one question is what kind of Afghan troops are involved? Are they Tajiks/Uzbeks and foreign, or are they culturally able to ally themselves with the locals? I think that is what this strategy hinges on, if there is any hope at all for it to work.

And (as you say, above…) if this is such a great idea, why not do the same in Kandahar? Why go to all the trouble of “clearing” an area if the plan is to revert it to the locals and their allies anyhow? I guess it is a judgement call about how politically Taliban-ized an area is.

RScott February 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Yes, one of the big factors is WHO the Afghan army ethnically represents…and the general reaction of the local people to an Afghan army occupation no matter who they might be. They are not likely to be very pro-Kabul government. The initial uprising in Afghanistan in 78 against the Afghan communist government started in these areas in north Konar and Nuristan. It could very well be that the Afghan army group left behind will simply be driven out…and my view, do nothing in response. They want to be left alone as they have been for a long time before the Soviet invasion.

Dishonesty? February 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm

And here?

Waza K’wah has not had a convoy ground resupply in nearly three years due to poor to non-existent roadway infrastructure and the high risk of enemy activity. The forward operating base runs off of the fuel supplied in these airdrops, and without them wouldn’t be able to conduct missions.

doyle February 25, 2011 at 3:38 pm

That the people want to be left alone has been a common theme, shared by most, for long before any allied involvement. Taliban? Useless to them. US Forces? Useless to them. Central government (Kabul)? A joke at best. Will Afghan forces be welcomed and effective on their own? Perhaps only if there is a counter force making their presence necessary, Other that that, the locals will simply say good riddance.

Johny Matrix February 25, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I’ll preface with thanks for giving attention to the subject of realignment, even though the NYT composes the article for the masses.

Comparing pullout of the Pech to other pullouts in unwise to say the least. Within Kunar / Nuristan, there has been a definite environment of retreat for about 4 years since the ‘realignment’ of the Ranch House of Arans in the Waigal Valley. I use quotations with ‘realigment’ because its not realigment, it is retreat. Naray, Chowkay, Gowardesh, Kamdesh, Waigal, Korengal…and now Pech…all valleys that have been ‘realigned’.

Hey I realize you want to perceive and evaluate this conflict in your own terms, but it’s evident you do not attempt to have a clear understanding of force…you need to understand force before you comment on the military’s purpose within the region, any region. All those capillary valleys I just rumbled off, we were not supposed to be conducting COIN within their walls…they were buffers. Buffers whose purpose was to take the fight away from the Pech River, Kunar River, Asadabad and Jalalabad populations and enable them to flourish. Again I know what you’re going to say, they didn’t flourish, however you’d be wrong in that assessment. Whereas the Taliban previously (previous to 2004, when Blessing was established) had an open, overt, and working Judicial system operating separate from the tribal Shura, since then they have been forced to create shadow governments who operate (I’ll admit quite effectively) far away from the population. In the Pech alone, bazaars at least doubled in size and economic production and a paved road spanned from A-Bad all the way West to the village of Rechelam. So as far as playing whack-a-mole, I don’t know if that’s a real accurate assessment.

How far do we go? That’s the question…the answer is now far enough for the ANA to be able to defend themselves. Man, your out of your mind if you think the ANA have any chance there. I was a PL with an AO of Nangalam to Want…with us there with CAS and CCA, 155’s and 120’s, they would STILL find an excuse to go back to base when on mission. When we’d sneak around those mountains above Want in order to check up on that ‘ANP’ force that was left behind after 13 July 2008, there’d be a TIC like clockwork everytime…they were never there, we could see plain as daylight that there was never one uniformed individual on post. They are not ready and this is not responsible ‘realignment’.

And yes, this is biased because I was there…but what is stated above is not incorrect. I’m not completely opposed to your assessments (spot-on with the ANSF’s need to start accepting responsibility), but in this case I would be extremely surprised if the provincial capital in Asadabad moves farther South towards J-bad after this move. Make the ANSF accept some responsibility somewhere else because this is not the place.

Joshua Foust February 26, 2011 at 11:10 am

Johnny,

I don’t think anyone doubts there will be more insurgents in the area. The question is, will that matter all that much? I’m not sure it will. We cannot defend the entire Pech Valley with the resources we have on hand, and we’re going to have a lot fewer over the next few years. We have to prioritize places we CAN defend.

Which is the argument I’m making. Asadabad and Jalalabad matter more than Watapor. It sucks for the people of Watapor, but if they reject our presence, we really don’t have the means to force it on them.

S February 26, 2011 at 3:01 am

The trajectory that Pesh and Watapur districts will now follow is similar to that followed by Nuristan earlier. ISAF has been withdrawing down valley for some time now – from the Wanat and the Waygal in Nuristan, from small side valleys like Korengal, now from the whole Pesh river save the plains around Asadabad. If ANSF can hold the ground along the main river and road, that will certainly be something. But the experience of Nuristan, and even of Chapa Dara district just above Pesh, doesn’t suggest they will have much success in preventing militants from consolidating control.

I wouldn’t look toward Nimroz, Farah, or Helmand for similar withdrawals. Depending on how adventurous the insurgency gets in Kunar, other districts such as Ghaziabad, Shigal, and Marawara will be the next biggest challenge to ISAF, and pose the same choice of withdrawal vs. hard fighting for little ground. Country-wide, Paktika and (parts of) Ghazni are the provinces that will force ISAF to make the next such decision.

Johny Matrix February 26, 2011 at 11:54 am

It will matter when the streets of J-Bad have to suffer the consequences of our unwillingness to spend time and logistics deeper in Kunar. Everything you stated is true except the question and purpose for our reason in this environment. Even that Pech river road, I can almost guarantee that Blessing/Michigan/Able Main will all dissolve. I’ve really given up on the fact that any of us can affect this specific decision, but M Shannon…your advice is spot on concerning when/how the drawback should take place. Western/Northern/Central AFG should go first and go now to the ANA.

Steve Magribi February 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm

I was up in Abad, the other day with the Governor and some of mine and Boris’s old tribal friends. We talked about this for a long long time in a room of about 20 bearded ones.

They all think this is the beginning of the end. How we withdraw and the details is meaningless to them. We are out the door.

What I tried to convince them of was that the draw down does not have to a bad thing, if instead of sitting on the FOBs drawing fire we actually mount operations in the areas, with more surprise and thus keep the enemy off base more than these the ineffective firebases have done. This way we are not sitting on the population but instead taking the fight to the Taliban concentrations as they form and disperse.

One of the black turbaned guys laughed and noted that Kunar is just important as a launching pad to the North and the corridor moving straight to Kabul. He said the FOBs were just nice firing ranges to teach the newbies how to shoot and now they would have to find new shooting ranges farther away. He said once we give up blocking the ingress from Pakistan be it North Central or South it would be open season on more and more targets and more shaheed operations.

I did my best, they were not very convinced. Take it on my word, that arms are now be collected and some are preparing for the post ISAF world. Talks or no Talks the issue is not resolved and many Afghans are not giving up the ship no matter what we do.

Johny Matrix February 26, 2011 at 3:35 pm

“I did my best, they were not very convinced. Take it on my word, that arms are now be collected and some are preparing for the post ISAF world. Talks or no Talks the issue is not resolved and many Afghans are not giving up the ship no matter what we do.”

Do you think these arms will be pointed at each other, the insurgents, or ISAF?

Steve Magribi February 26, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Johnny…This is all in play. They sound me out, I sound them out, we are old friends and in a group there may be several factions. The feeling is ISAF is out, and those who want to resist the Taliban need to make preparations because they remember what happened in 1996 when a lot of us had to hightail it out of JBad at night. It was a cold night in September when we fled. Now there is no Pakistan to flee to, so the stakes are higher for many.

They hate Pakistan and the Wahabbis, they doubt the ANSF, and consider ISAF as a spent force. Their possibilities are bleak, but they are actually quite familiar with this kind of situation.

After meetings like this, everyone goes home to carefully consider over some time what they heard, and next meeting we will see what viewpoints held sway and what they are thinking.

In the meantime we all need to stay alive, and red bull is the new national drink of Afghanistan.

Johny Matrix February 27, 2011 at 12:49 am

Steve, stay safe and head South if you can. I know it shouldn’t have its place in the decision but I just feel real bad for those elders that stuck their necks out for us, hopefully they haven’t forgot too much from their fighting days against the Soviets because Allah knows they’ll need them.

RScott February 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm

If they fought the Soviets, then their sons and grandsons are likely among those fighting us. Among the 20 or so bearded ones, there were likely some in this category. ? We tend to look at all the guys shooting at us as outsiders. That is not the way it was against the Soviets and not likely the way it is now.

Don Anderson February 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm

This is only a small group. Most are in their forties or early fifties, they are all indeed Afghan Mujahadeen of the War against the Soviets.

Not this group, but sometimes one of the friends will elbow me when one or two guys enter, and this is kind of code that the entering guys might be more than they seem.

There is a mix of rationales for joining the insurgents. But after talking to this particular group, they are pretty anti Taliban in nature, most having suffered during the past Taliban rule. Since they are not corrupt Government officials or Contractors(another group) they have not benefitted like some others and do not have homes in the UK or Australia(another group) to flee to.

They are kind of the silent majority here, against so much of what is going on, with both sides and worried about the future.

Family ties come first. Remember the Taliban may have twenty thousand to 100 thousand members(I will take the high) out of a population of 38 million. Lots of people in the middle.

Potemkyn February 26, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Not to burst any bubbles but despite halving the number of bases in the three districts of Naray, Ghaziabad, and Kamdesh following the the Kamdesh re-alignment, violence overall went up by a factor of two in the remaining areas. Violence went up and it was assumed that if the local Kamdesh fighters didn’t go south, at least the money and munitions sure did.

Still a good call to get out of the Kamdesh valley but the reasons are not well articulated. Kamdesh was a mistake because the bases were highly vulnerable, required a huge amount of effort to supply, and, most importantly, did not have good access to outside fire support assets. CAS and CCA took hours to get on scene if they ever did. Not a good place to fight. Leaving those areas doesn’t make other areas safer by any means, but it may not be the best place to fight in the first place. COIN isn’t even an option in these areas, its too kinetic.

Will February 26, 2011 at 8:44 pm

“Sarobi hasn’t seen much violence in the last six months.”

Hmm. I would guess that this has more to do with the traditional slow down in the winter months of the INS ops tempo than any security gains. I’m curious to see how many TICs are in Sarobi March — September 2011 compared to the same months in 2010.

Don Bacon February 26, 2011 at 9:35 pm

According to the NYTimes article McChrystal made the decision two years ago to pull out of the Pech. Apparently Petraeus reversed that decision and now has reversed it again. Too many decisions signal indecision, but now the decision has been made, the US troops are out and the infiltration routes are open at a time when Pakistan is headed south. Say goodbye and don’t forget to turn the lights out..

quell February 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm

“dr.” foust.
i would like to point out that proselytizing in majority muslim countries is impossible.
we can never “stand up westernstyle=judeochristian democracy” because freedom of speech is incompatible with shariah law.
it is actually counterproductive, because proselytizing triggers anti-proselytization reflex.
How much clearer can i make this?
1. shariah law forbids proselytization
2. freedom of speech legalizes proselytization
3. therefore shariah and freedom of speech are incompatible.

so what we were attempting in Iraq and A-stan CAN NEVER BE DONE.
can we go home NAOW?

Dishonesty? February 28, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Additional reposition to provide better security for the afghan people
WE ARE COMING OUT OF THE URUZGAN

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A U.S. squadron will head to Kandahar’s Dand district next month in a move that will enable the Canadian military to start “saturating” the western neck of Panjwaii before the conclusion of combat operations, Canada’s top soldier in Afghanistan says.

The 1st squadron of the 2nd Stryker Regiment will leave the Uruzgan province and take command of the Dand battle space in mid-March from the 1-71 Cavalry of 10th Mountain Division.

The movement of forces means fewer troops on the ground in Uruzgan, a province north of Kandahar that saw the withdrawal of 1,600 Dutch troops last year.

A senior military officer in Uruzgan was recently quoted in an Australian news report as saying the reduced number of coalition forces would be “manageable.”

Maxou March 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm

French military wants to get out of Surobi because they know the french gouvernment won’t send more troops but they need reinforcements in Kapisa where they only have 3 infantry companies.

anan March 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm

More importantly, the Kabul ANP and the elite 3-111 armored ANA have Surobi covered. 3-111 is Afghanistan’s only heavy brigade and national QRF. It is French and Greek mentored.

The French look like they are getting 3-201 ANA brigade to mentor as well. What the French would really like is for their two ANA brigades to be fully resourced. i.e. 4 combat battalions each. 4 combat infantry companies per combat battalion. This would mean two brigade troops + 8 combat bn HQs + 32 combat infantry companies.

Plus they want ANPTC to prioritize Kapisha’s request for new ANP NCO graduates [who get 14-18 weeks training each] and officer graduates [who get 20 weeks to 6 months training each.]

Problem is that every other province wants the same thing and their aren’t enough ANPTC training seats to go around.

Maxou, could you clarify your assertion that the French only have 3 infantry companies in Kapisha? Pretty sure that is incorrect. I can look that up.

anan March 7, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Correction:
“two brigade troops + 8 combat bn HQs + 32 combat companies.”

Many 3-111 ANA companies are mechanized or armored.

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