Why the Korengal Valley matters

At The New York Times, Sebastian Junger shares what he knows about Kunar’s Korengal Valley, the region abandoned by US forces last week and now overtaken by the Taliban. Junger’s article should be read in full, but the two paragraphs below point out that the valley does indeed possess tactical significance. And the oft-repeated mantra that the Korengal was merely a local fight is shown to be false.

First, a significant proportion of enemy fighters in the Korengal were foreigners who had come to Afghanistan to wage jihad. There were Pakistani cellphone numbers painted on rocks around the valley as a recruiting tool for potential volunteers; there were Arabic graffiti urging local men to join the fight. These foreigners presumably would have fought the Americans wherever they found them; if we had avoided the Korengal they would simply have shifted the battle elsewhere. (To a better place? A worse one? I doubt even the Taliban could say.)

Furthermore, I was told that one of the reasons for establishing a base in the Korengal was to prevent militants from using the valley to stage attacks on the vastly more important Pech River Valley, immediately to the north. The Pech was a major corridor for moving men and supplies, and after American bases were established in the Korengal, attacks at Pech dropped off significantly. The Korengal may not have been important per se, but arguably the Pech was, and there may have been no way to strategically separate the two.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Mr T says:

    And what is our strategy to protect the Pech now? Maybe we won’t.

  • Joel says:

    Is it not feasible to just monitor and attacks insurgents in this area the same way we do in the tribal areas of Pakistan? With the eyes in the sky. It seems the commanders simply decided the return on investment was not high enough to justify a ground presence. That does not mean we have to abandon the area completely.

  • Dr H says:

    While Junger’s piece provides a poignant description of the struggle the soldiers there faced and the sacrifices they made, both physical and psychological, it doesn’t illustrate any operational or strategic value of the valley. As I was watching the Al Jazzera video of the Taliban at their base camp, it struck me what a brilliant plan the pull-out will prove to be when they drop a JDAM on it the next time they mass militants there.
    As hard as it is for soldiers to accept, OEF-Afghanistan is no longer about killing bad guys. The mission is to train the ANA and local police so that they kill the bad guys and we can leave. Granted, there are still strikes to conduct to suppress the violence and set conditions for ANA success, but those missions are not the main effort unless they are in the proximity of vital population centers (not tactical outposts in the boondocks).

  • Borja says:

    Dear Bill,
    I do not agree with you for two reasons.
    First. You should choose your battles and your battleground. If a 6Km valley needs 120 sodiers, asuming a square valley of 36 km2 the 647500 km2 of Afghanistan would need 2.158.333 soldiers. Plus logistic, air force and command. You need the pilots of the helicopter, the mechanics, etc…
    Korengal was a terrain favorable for the taliban and uselees for NATO. Really hard to supply. In fact it was done by helicopter. Afghanistan is a helicopter war and helos are a valuable resource. For the taliban it has different. They controled the mountain. They had a very good comunnication with pakistan and Taliban controled territory.
    Figthing the same battle in Marja, Sangin or Kandahar would really be easer to supply by the same road they want to protect. And controlling territories next to another has a better net effect.
    Second. There may be some foreing figthers but thouse are the easy ones to spot. Specially with the help of the afghans. And, for some of the locals militants, it was easy to fight a war next to his village and farms. Moving to other places means looking for a house and a job. It hey live in the mountains they need to hide their weapons in holes and they can be spoted by planes 24*7. And people from Korengal do have a peculiar dialect that would be suspicous to ANA and ANP if they go to other provinces.
    So, having paid a heavy price for a bad decision is not a reason for keeping paying it.

  • Dr H says:

    Borja’s correct. Just because soldiers died in the Korengal Valley, doesn’t mean it’s important. ISAF understands the mission is not to kill the Taliban, it is to build the ANA. Granted, it will occasionally be necessary to combat the Taliban directly to set the conditions where the ANA can succeed, but the main effort is to get the ANA up to speed so we can let go of their handlebar. The ANA needs to kill the Taliban who choose to be violent.
    An ole country boy in the Marine Corps once taught me a poignant lesson, “the trouble with wrestling with a pig is that nobody wins, you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
    The US military’s strength is in our maneuverability, not in our ability to build static outposts for insurgents to attack. Watching the Al Jazeera video of the Taliban moving into the former US camp, it occurred to me how brilliant the plan will look when we drop a JDAM on those massing militants.
    Amateurs view withdrawals as surrenders. Professionals understand they can be effective tactical maneuvers, especially when they draw the enemy into a trap.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I agree that the sunk cost argument is unsound. I also agree that on balance, it may be tactically sound to withdraw from the outposts. On that issue I am mixed. Junger makes some good arguments against leaving, and I wanted those to be seen.
    I’d also argue the US had fantastic success in COIN in Iraq in maintaining static outposts. This is what won Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah…. COIN isn’t about maneuver. That said, again, the Korengal may not be the best place to make that stand. As I said, I have mixed thoughts on that issue.
    I do think that the strategic message that this withdrawal sends Afghans: ‘We will leave you if it gets too tough’ – is being ignored. Don’t think this isn;’t being disseminated by the Taliban amongst Afghans. US commanders can ignore this and call it propaganda, but it is effect propaganda.
    Dr. H, get back to me when they do drop a JDAM on Taliban massing at that former OP. It ain’t gonna happen. It didn’t happen when we pulled out of bases in Kamdesh in Nuristan, and it won’t happen here. ROE and all.

  • Dr H says:

    True, the US had success in Ramadi, Fallujah, Hamadiyah, Baghdad, Haditha…maintaining COPs in urban population centers, but I don’t remember too many outposts in rural valleys. I wouldn’t call their success “fantastic” but it was effective, and that is arguably what Operation Moshtarak is designed to do also; clear, hold, and build in urban centers.
    You got me on the JDAM quip. That was more a hopeful suggestion for any readers on the ISAF staff. But you’re probably correct that it won’t likely happen. Our military commanders are not that crafty or imaginative. Nonetheless, they do have theater objectives and operational objectives that far outweigh the importance of a marginal outpost. And contriving importance out of “images” or “symbology” or “messages” to the enemy – especially when that enemy is an ill-equipped, irregular, rudimentary militia – is silly. What the Taliban think or AQ thinks is irrelevant. What is important is what the Afghan people think. And they need to see safe, secure cities and urban centers more than they need to see outposts in rural valleys with American flags at them. The Afghan people need to see a competent, professional ANA that protects their markets and schools. That’s what matters.

  • Render says:

    The Taliban/al-Q use logistics lines as well. Their lines may not look the same, but they are there nonetheless.
    Sharing the Khyber and Pech Passes with Coalition logistics while not impossible for the Talib, is rather more difficult and problematical. Not the least of which is that any break in the line, such as a blown bridge, effects both adversaries.
    Prior to 2005 the Korengal was noted as a transit point for groups of Talib. It will no doubt return to such within the next six months or less. And the likelihood of additional Taliban attacks on, in, and around the Khyber and Pech Passes and Jalabad-Peshawar Road will undoubtedly increase accordingly.
    After all, the Pakistani side of the Kunar Province border is Bajaur Province and it’s quite clear that the Talib are very much in control there.
    I note that according to certain press reports it appears that at least one “blocking position” will remain in the Korengal Valley area. If that is true then it is a signal from Coalition command that they recognize all of the above. It is also an open invitation to the Korengal/Bajaur based Talib/al-Q to mass on that single COP some ugly day.
    A flank has been refused, but there is no trap to spring on the bait. The trap has gone to Kandahar…

  • Borja says:

    I agree with COIN and static posts. But it means using static post to isolate an area, clean it from insurgents so that the population there is safe.
    Some day this population will produce police, army, taxes, services, etc, and the you can continue to another place.
    But NATO was not controlling areas, in fact there were shotting everyday. And, the small population was not keep secure between outpost.
    Anyway, I hope that in a few years or so NATO or/and ANA will return to Korengal to clean it from insurgents.

  • Render says:

    “Six months or less” I said…
    “As I am writing this post I am concurrently trying to reroute a client around the almost daily fire fight on the vital Kabul to Jalalabad road. Last night we had a mortar round impact in Jalalabad City which has seen more IED’s and indirect fire attacks in the past 5 weeks then in the previous five years.”
    Even faster then I thought.


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