The recent US withdrawal from the Korengal Valley in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan has provided the Taliban with yet another “Taliban propaganda coup,” as a video released shows enemy fighters in charge of the former US outposts.
In the video, the Taliban claim to have taken control of the Korengal Valley, while conducting a guided tour of an abandoned US outpost with an Al Jazeera reporter. Taliban fighters are seen walking through the base, which just days ago was occupied by US forces until they withdrew to comply with “the requirements of the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy,” according to Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, ISAF’s Joint Command commander.
The Taliban are seen walking through the rows of intact HESCO barriers, the makeshift wire and mesh walls filled with earth that surround the outpost. US forces appeared to have left hastily, abandoning equipment and leaving fighting positions intact, with air conditioning units, unused HESCOs, razor wire, fuel jerry cans, furniture, and other items in full view.
The Taliban claimed that US forces left behind boxes of ammunition and plenty of fuel. The video shows ammunition boxes but it is not clear if the boxes are full or empty.
“There is a lot of ammunition left behind – mortars, rockets, and missiles,” a local Taliban commander named Anwar told Al Jazeera. “This, God willing, we will [use] against them.”
The US military said the fuel was left behind for civilians to use, and claimed fighting positions were destroyed and munitions were removed.
The Taliban are now claiming to be in full control of the Korengal Valley and admitted that “a number of Arab fighters have moved into the area,” the term used for al Qaeda.
US move feeds the Taiban propaganda mill
Late last year, the Taliban produced a similar video and made similar claims after US forces withdrew from isolated combat outposts in the neighboring province of Nuristan. The Taliban were seen ranging through a combat outpost in the remote district of Kamdish that just days before had been nearly overrun during an enemy assault. Within a month after the US withdrawal, the Taliban began openly governing in Kamdish.
While the US pullback from the remote outposts in Kunar and Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan may make sense from a tactical perspective, the moves are serving to embolden the Taliban and hurt the Coalition’s strategic message, several senior US military officers who wish to remain anonymous due to the controversy over this issue told The Long War Journal.
“There is truth that these outposts are hard to defend and are tough on resources, tough to resuppply,” A senior military officer said. “And the return in terms of counterinsurgency success may be low, as we’re not winning many people over. But look at what we have signaled to the Afghan people: we will leave you if it becomes too difficult.”
“We are giving the Taliban propaganda on a silver platter,” another officer said. “Note how Al Jazeera was on tap for this pullout. We can dismiss this all we want, but the reality is this is another Taliban propaganda coup. The message may be lost on those in ISAF but it isn’t lost on the Afghan people, many whom already think we have one foot out the door.”
“We tell ourselves much of this battle is a battle for perceptions, yet we often refuse to manage those perceptions,” the officer continued. “We are having it handed to us when it comes to the information war, it is that simple.”
Another officer said the withdrawals from Nuristan and Kunar can hinder efforts to sell an operation to Afghans in Kandahar.
“We’re going to them to tell them we’re here to protect them, but they can see we haven’t kept our promises in the east,” the officer said. “And then we wonder why they sit on the fence.”
Al Jazeera video of Taliban roaming a US base in Korengal
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.