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— 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.