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: