After years of fighting for control of a prominent valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the United States military has begun to pull back most of its forces from ground it once insisted was central to the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
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.
While American officials say the withdrawal matches the latest counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, Afghan officials worry that the shift of troops amounts to an abandonment of territory where multiple insurgent groups are well established, an area that Afghans fear they may not be ready to defend on their own.
And it is an emotional issue for American troops, who fear that their service and sacrifices could be squandered. At least 103 American soldiers have died in or near the valley’s maze of steep gullies and soaring peaks, according to a count by The New York Times, and many times more have been wounded, often severely.
Matt Cantor at Newser:
Military leaders say the valley ate up more resources than was appropriate considering its importance, that troops can be better used elsewhere, and that there aren’t enough troops for a clear victory in the region even if they did stay. “What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-US or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” notes an official. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.” But insurgents will likely see this as a victory for their side, the Times notes. As for the Afghan troops that will remain behind, “It will be a suicidal mission,” says a former Afghan battalion leader.
Joshua Foust at Registan:
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.
The WaPo covered the action in the Pech Valley late last year:
U.S. troops battle to hand off a valley resistant to Afghan governance
By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 12:00 AM
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.
“The best thing we can do is to pull back,” he said, “and let the Afghans figure this place out.”
So it is all going according to the latest revised plan and there may be a bit of hype in the current Times headline
Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:
So how can you or I tell if the war is going well or not? For that matter, how can Barack Obama be sure that he’s getting the straight scoop from his commanders in the field? Even if the military was initially skeptical about a decision to go to war, once committed to the field its job is to deliver a victory. No dedicated military organization wants to admit it can’t win, especially when it is facing a much smaller, less well-armed, and objectively “inferior” foe like the Taliban. Troops in the field also need to believe in the mission, and to be convinced that success is possible.
To the extent that they need to keep civilian authorities and the public on board, therefore, we can expect military commanders to tell an upbeat story, even when things aren’t going especially well. I am not saying that they lie; I’m saying that they have an incentive to “accentuate the positive” in order to convince politicians, the press, and the public that success will be ours if we just persevere. Indeed, this was one of the key “lessons” that the U.S. military took from Vietnam: Success in modern war — and especially counterinsurgency — depends on more effective “information management” on the home front. And this tendency is not unique to the United States or even to democracies; one sees the same phenomenon in most wars, no matter who is fighting.