August 13, 2011
The Endless Valley
No matter how Pentagon officials and pro-military analysts spin the return to Dara-I-Pech, this story will only break one way to the U.S. and Afghan publics. Before a Chinook went down in a fiery blaze in Tangi, killing 30 American and eight Afghan soldiers, the U.S. military had already rolled back along the Pech river, some 150 miles from Wardak province. Both valleys were vacated months ago in order to protect population centers.
Now the Pentagon is being forced to reconsider the value of leaving outposts to the Taliban, and in doing so has telegraphed the impression of stalemate in Afghanistan.
Military officials aren’t lying when they claim the decision to reenter Pech was made before Tangi’s crash. The invasion party made headlines on July 25th - and escaped the worst kind - when a Taliban RPG grazed one of the first incoming Chinooks. Now that the south has been neutralized, U.S. officials argue, isolated pockets of insurgency (and the Haqqani network) can be targeted in the east, where CIA Director General Petraeus envisioned a major shift from the southern provinces. By September the 35th Infantry “Cacti” Regiment, of the 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, will occupy the former “FOB Blessing,” now known as Nangalam Base.
The previous name was dropped after transitioning control to Afghan forces in February, although U.S. commanders might have finally seen the subtle wisdom in naming the base after the district’s largest settlement.
First playing up SEAL deaths to continue its war uninterrupted, the Pentagon has downplayed the decision to re-station troops in Pech. Rather than correcting a strategic error or reacting to the Taliban’s continual presence in the area, U.S. troops have returned to “set the conditions Afghan security forces.” Lt. Col. Chad Carrol denied that U.S. troops left the area, stressing that coalition troops continue to operate throughout the valley-network. Nor have U.S. troops returned because their Afghan counterparts failed to maintain what little security existed. Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, commander of the 2-35th, formally stated, “We’re coming here to set the conditions for a transition that will support the Afghan army and Afghan police in providing security.”
In all likelihood the valley will be one of the last districts transferred, with ominous results.
Not everyone views the Pentagon’s move through rosy night-vision goggles. Seemingly abandoned by U.S. troops, returning to an isolated area to oversee a transition gives the local appearance that the previous transition didn’t work. Why, if Afghan troops did such an exemplary job, has the Taliban flourished in the area? Having replaced the local staff in April after the unit commander and his subordinates fled, U.S. officials returned to a dilapidated and looted FOB. Stars and Stripes’ own reporting revealed substantial doubts among the new unit, including the need to return to Pech, undisciplined Afghan soldiers and local disapproval.
On a larger scale Special Forces raids continue to spread fear and eliminate the Taliban ranks, with negligible effects on Afghanistan’s political and economic structures. This quicksand is difficult to escape for a U.S. soldier already questioning their mission. The multi-faceted Taliban network is also weathering America’s surge beyond expectations, generating a similar level of violence as previous years and displaying no hint of plummeting. U.S. commanders claim to have eliminated thousands of Taliban in Pech alone, yet here everyone is face to face.
Friday’s death toll rose to seven across Afghanistan, six from two separate IED’s and one from an ambush. While the Taliban is under pace at 391 kills (292 of them American), compared to 711 (499 U.S.) in 2010, they are on their way to exceeding 2009’s total of 521 (317 U.S). Thousands of night raids have bruised but failed to break a network composed of many subgroups and part-time units. Meanwhile 671 American troops have fallen during Obama's surge. Afghanistan won’t be copying Iraq’s drop-off in violence or insurgent activity. The war will grind on until Washington accepts a power-sharing agreement or fully withdraws in the absence of one, an unlikely possibility given the inevitable “residual force” past 2014.
Even Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon, one of the Pentagon’s gung-ho defense analysts, has worried aloud, “Despite the increase in operations, the insurgency seems not to relent. On balance I think we are weakening them, but less so than I would have expected given their resilience and ability to regenerate.”
Some analysts favor engaging valleys like Pech and Tangi with ground troops, not just Special Forces. Mark Moyar, research director of the U.S.-based COIN consultancy Orbis Operations, is one of them, writing in Bloomberg, “Although special operations raids have given the insurgents some black eyes in the Tangi and other valleys abandoned by U.S. forces, they have not disrupted enemy operations to the degree that had been hoped.” The Pentagon has overemphasized population security, leaving the Taliban free to plot regional operations from empty zones, and underestimated the psychological impact of both pulling out and re-entering, creating a vivid image of a seesaw.
Increasing ground presence only makes sense as a short-term tactical decision to avoid outright defeat, or as a long-term strategy paired with functioning government. The problem with arguing that U.S. forces must reoccupy these isolated valleys, which endlessly dot Afghanistan's border and interior, is largely a matter of force ratio and governance. Permanently “de-Talibaning” territory is impossible without both, and America shouldn’t occupy every valley even if it could raise some 300,000 troops and their cost.
Moyar correctly observes, "Insurgencies thrive on such safe havens and use them to stage operations elsewhere,” except Taliban leadership wants to play this game - to shift U.S. forces around in perpetual hide and seek. Plugging every hole in Afghanistan isn’t possible without unsustainable force levels, and “whack-a-mole” will play into the Taliban’s hands during a phased withdrawal. Korangal Valley’s wooded, mountainous terrain is also suited for guerrilla warfare in general, unlike Helmand and Kandahar’s flat heartland, and for ambushing helicopters specifically.
That Taliban fighters targeted Chinooks in Pech and Tangi is no coincidence, but evidence of a developing trend.
Instead of “hunkering down on bases,” Moyer writes in typical military rhetoric, “we could honor the sacrifices of the Americans killed in the Tangi Valley by strengthening our resolve and hunting the enemy wherever he feels he is safe. I strongly suspect that the troops in that ill-fated helicopter would have wanted their deaths to provide inspiration, not demoralization.” Although Moyer is correct in demanding local contact, his reason is to gather intelligence for more Special Forces raids. We also anticipated references to the SEALs’ upstanding character and determination soon after the crash in Tangi.
Of course they would want to fight on - and so do the Taliban.