US begins withdrawing forces from Kunar’s Pech Valley

The New York Times reports that the US Army has begun withdrawing from combat outposts in the Pech River Valley in Kunar province:

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.

The pullback from the Pech Valley is not surprising, as the US has pulled out of the Korengal Valley in Kunar and remote areas in neighboring Nuristan province since the fall of 2009 as part of a realignment in accordance with its population-centric counterinsurgency strategy.

US commanders may be technically correct: that supporting far-flung bases in remote areas with low populations is costly and difficult, and thus not worth the resources, effort, and sacrifices. But what seems to be lost here is the psychological cost of pulling out. First and foremost, the Taliban will seize on the withdrawal to make several points: that the US was defeated in the Pech, that Afghans can’t trust the US to stick it out, and that the US has one foot out the Afghan door. Afghans in Kunar and beyond will find the Taliban’s arguments convincing, and Afghans will be far less likely to trust US forces to back them now and in the future. The US is essentially abandoning Afghans who backed them during the fight in Pech. As the NYT report states, the pullout is demoralizing to US forces who have fought hard and lost brothers in the Pech, only to cede the ground to the Taliban. And finally, Pakistan will use the US withdrawal as an excuse to decrease operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Ultimately the withdrawals from these areas become Taliban propaganda coups, while the Taliban and al Qaeda take the opportunity to re-infiltrate the areas and establish training camps and forward bases to attack deeper into Afghanistan. I’ve covered these issues during the US pullout from the Korengal and Kamdesh in Nuristan in the past. The same applies here. For a sample, see LWJ and Threat Matrix reports:

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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17 Comments

  • gerald says:

    If the ANA can’t hold their own ground then no matter how long US troops remain in a particular province it won’t make any difference. It will be S. Vietnam all over again.

  • blert says:

    I’d say that the rationale is that our boys were too often starring off into space doing really nothing. They weren’t even constricting opfor logistics. Our ROE made that impossible.
    Apparently the critical resource is translators. Any ISAF without first class ‘terps is hobbled, often critically so.
    Our entire strategy has been flawed in as much as we did not comprehend the Pakistani strategic game of ‘bleed the Americans.’
    Right now Islamabad is shooting for all of the marbles: they want the CIA to give them the keys to Langley.
    ISI is directly behind all of the attacks on Chapman, Banks, Davis.
    The intent is to zero us out entirely.
    While this is going on Islamabad is using our money to build an atomic arsenal larger than India or Britain. It will continue to do so until Islamabad is in third place behind Russia and America in atomics.
    Pakistan is a shakedown ‘state.’ That’s how the Punjabis see their economic future. They have adopted the Nork fantasy as their over arching solution to all of their problems.
    It’s a dead end: Obama will be out of office in 2013. Whomever comes next is going to flip-flop his policies. That’s the nature of American politics.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Everything I’ve heard about the Pech and its environs indicates an essentially local insurgency in a depopulated area. There are an awful lot of better places in Afghanistan to do counterinsurgency than the Pech – that we didn’t realize this in 2006 doesn’t mean we should compound that mistake by staying there.
    And anyways, the Afghans are staying – what’s the Taliban’s line going to be, “US forces conduct a strategic realignment to more important areas” with a video of them missing an Afghan base with rockets instead?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    That’s what they said about Korengal and Kamdesh as well, and it hasn’t worked out so well there either.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Bill,
    Please elaborate.
    There’s another base just east of Kamdesh that has presumably taken up the slack in the region, hopefully sited on more defensible terrain. Why do you feel the bad guys have gained any kind of worthwhile ground at Kamdesh, period?
    Has the Korengal valley actually become a Taliban staging area or simply ungoverned ground? If it has, how has it actually affected security? Given that the Korengal opens north to the Pech it’s kind of hard to see where precisely they’re staging to from it, beyond shooting at COP Michigan.
    I hate to say it, but a lot of our deployment in Kunar to date has defied the best practices of counterinsurgency by focusing on chasing insurgents around the countryside rather than securing the population. The reason for this is simple – a lot of these bases predate COIN getting popular with the US military.
    In my view, if you’re worried about insurgent IO the answer is for us to get better at our own IO rather than base operations around us maybe looking bad.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    How do you get a hold of IO when the Taliban stands on ground that we once occupied, and governs? And gets in on Al Jazeera?
    It isn’t always about COIN, or textbook COIN. Abandoning people that worked with you, or handing your enemy easy propaganda victories, or providing sanctuaries to your enemies, or doing all three can be just as damaging to your efforts as holding some poorly placed bases.
    Being brief in answering your questions:
    In Kamdesh you’ve had the Taliban’s top leader in the province seen on propaganda tapes on former US bases, and he’s known to operate from there freely. The Taliban also are known to openly govern there. Korengal has been the scene of multiple raids against AQ (you can see this in ISAF press releases) which means there are AQ cells there. And the Taliban also govern in areas of the Korengal according to reports. In Pech, SOF conducted numerous raids the past year against AQ cells in Pech, including the targeting of Qari Zia Rahman. SOF killed Abdallah Umar al Qurayshi in Pech last summer. My guess is that less AQ won’t be the the result of a US pullout from the Korengal.

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    Maybe the Pech and Korengal will become places SF kills or captures a HVT, damn i feel for the guys who didn’t make it back. I watched “Restrepo”, read the book, and the 2 sides were not on the same page, or book for that matter. This will evolve into a counter terror mission soon.

  • mike says:

    Look who’s giving the Taliban the safe have, then there blame pakistan.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    Bill,
    So, how has the situation really changed before and after American troops left? Kamdesh was held by the Taliban when Keating was operational, we rarely ever went into the southern half of the Korengal and AQ cells are in the Pech right now.
    We simply don’t have an infinite number of troops to fight everywhere we might wish to fight in Afghanistan – I don’t see any reason we should keep a battalion in the Pech given that there are key terrain districts nearby in need of attention. Especially with ANA troops remaining after we leave.

  • James says:

    If Petraeus were to ask for my advice, I would say that anything handed down by McChrystal ought to be at the very least suspect.
    I will venture a guess that just maybe this might be some kind of a lure or maybe decoy strategy.
    We have to remember, if they run and hide to Pakistan, the best (at least so far) they can nail them with are the drones.
    However, if they decide to hang around Afghanistan, it’s “open season” on their hides with the full force and fury of the US military both in the air AND on the ground.
    With the anticipated taliban spring offensive, it might also involve (at least in part) a decoy strategy. The timing of the redeployment I feel may at least lend some credence to that.
    If there’s just not enough “boots on the ground” to go around, I suppose you’re basically stuck making hard decisions as to where to deploy them in the most effective manner.
    I think General McArthur was in the same position in the Phillipines but recall his attitude was: “I shall return.”
    This is going to be a long and arduous 2 years until that “regime change” (in DC) finally (and at long last) comes about.
    If the going gets tough, the tough get going; they don’t just “cut & run.”

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    This could be an attempt to draw them in. The Pech looks pretty rugged, and how far down the valley can we go? If they flood the area its possible airpower can cause huge casualties. We may have abandoned it altogether, we’ll see.

  • readthehistory says:

    Many valid and reasonable comments have been made and hopefully here are some additions:
    1. Pakistan and their policies, fears and duplicity are really going to end all academic discussions about AFPAK
    2. Because of the Pashtun interests and their desire for running themselves, independent of either Pakistan or Afghanistan central governments, what we do there will be undone as quickly as we leave.
    3. trusting anyone in that region is akin to keeping a viper as a pet and being surprised when you get bit.
    4. They understand us better than we understand them and that is a bad place to be.
    5. Finally, no government or power is destined to have any sway or true long-term success in that region as proven by history (time and time again).
    I wish I could be optimistic and say we have made a difference for our future, but I believe no matter how many battles and operations we are successful in while we are there, we will ultimately leave like the Russians, British, Mongols and Greeks and chaos will resume.

  • Bungo says:

    Yeah, this doesn’t bode well in my mind. I guess “Clear and Hold” has been thrown out the window (Again!)
    In my analysis the U.S. administration (read Obama) did not add enough “Surge” troops to overwhelm the enemy as necessary. The results are what we see happening now.
    I recently saw an excellent documentary on HBO called “THe Battle For Marjah”. It was a real eye-opener, let me tell you. As balanced as it was it shows that we are fighting a war (for a country that I couldn’t care less about) using the same tactics we’ve been using for over 40 years and that we’re going to look stupid when it’s all said and done. The Afghan’s don’t want us there and they will never produce a military that can defend itself in any reasonable amount of time and the Kabul government is totally corrupt and cares nothing about the populace living in the territories. The whole thing stinks to high heaven.
    The enemy (as dysfunctional and unpopular as they are) is in Pakistan. We need to focus on that and stop putting lipstick on a pig.

  • Charu says:

    The psychological effects of this withdrawal will be devastating. Not only will the TalibISI be emboldened, our troops will question their need to sacrifice their lives for such a muddled strategy. Back home, where shared sacrifice with the volunteer army means to focus on the Oscars and other similar weighty matters, there is a sense that this is Vietnam redux; going by the majority of the reader’s responses to this NYT article. This view is deeply flawed because the Vietcong did not pose an existential threat to us in the manner that the al Qaeda do. If we pull out of AfPak you have the explosive ingredients there – al Qaeda, Taliban, ISI – for wreaking major terrorist mayhem in our cities. Ceding the hard-fought valleys in Afghanistan is like retreating during WWII from the pacific islands that our marines paid a bloody price in freeing from the Japs. But then the entire nation was on a war-footing at that time, unlike today. And the Japs were not being treacherously aided and abeted by our Russian allies.

  • James says:

    Bill, might this be (at least) some good news from the Afghan Front?:
    http://www.newsweek.com/2011/02/27/how-the-taliban-lost-its-swagger.html
    It annoys me at least somewhat when people keep calling the place “the graveyard of the empires.”
    Well, how come they haven’t managed to expel the arabs and/or their AQ owners yet? After all, isn’t that the main reason for our being there in the first place?
    Seriously, if the place is the “graveyard” of anything, I’d like to see it become the graveyard of Al Queda.
    As far as the local Afghans are concerned, I have felt all along that their destiny is in their own hands.
    Ultimately, what might save them and US from a horrible outcome in this thing will have to the equivalent of a “Sunni Awakening” among the potentially “good” (from our perspective) Afghan Taliban of true Afghan origins.

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    The ANA looked inept. I watched “Marja” too and i feel bad for those Marines. This “country” is a mosaic of ethnic groups, tribes. Its not going to work, lets end this and bring them home. Nation building especially here will NOT work.

  • stevied4 says:

    I watched the documentary Battle for Marjah and my son is stationed there right now. It only reinforced my point is that when Obama did his surge that the numbers should have been 130.000 and anything less is just pissing in the wind. Semper Fi

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