Should We Stay or Should We Go? COIN in the Pech valley

For the 10-year anniversary of the FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency doctrine, Ultima Ratio will publish a series of articles dealing with the following topics: the foundations of this doctrine, its impact on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and French interpretation of it.

By Chris Zeitz

Kunar and Nuristan provinces – remote, sparse, and mountainous – have always been difficult to control.

The population inhabiting these areas are scattered with significant linguistic and ethnic diversity. When Kabul or foreign powers have attempted to intervene in this eastern region of the country, they have often been met with resistance. At the peak of their power, the Taliban managed to forcesome rival mujahedeen commandersfrom to live in exile in neighboring Pakistan, but their militias maintained a presence in these provinces. At times, the dispersed groups in these provinces have worked in conjunction with one another against outsiders. At other times, outsiders have successfully played one side against the other (Wanat, p. 4-6). Given the complexities of both human and geographic terrain, the United States Army Combat Studies Institute noted that the dominant personalities of this region tend to be those “who can peacefully resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise over access to and use of constrained resources” (Wanat, p. 7).

COIN Pech Valley

Pech Valley at junction of Pech and Waygal – photo by the author

Initially, this part of Afghanistan was not a major focus for the coalition. The Taliban of Mullah Omar operated primarily in the south. Other provinces had much larger cities with greater economic prospects. The Taliban and other insurgent groups began to persuade local fighters to fight the central government beginning in 2002[1]. “Vanguard” teams established local connections and worked to create a shadow government in these provinces and elsewhere (Giustozzi, p. 71-77, 101, 110-111). Alongside these efforts, coalition missteps fueled the emerging anti-government insurgency (Morgan, p. 3-4).

COIN Pech Valley

Coalition Involvement and Expansion

Coalition operations in the Pech were initiated in 2002 under the auspices of special operation forces (SOF) hunting rumors of Al Qaeda operatives in the region. These missions were essentially counter terror raids, as coalition forces remained situated in more populated parts of Kunar province.The first large scale operation in the region, in late 2003, was based on intelligence that insurgents were operating in the Waygal Valley, a tributary of the Pech. The mission resulted in the elimination of small weapons caches and sporadic clashes with insurgents. In a subsequent raid later that month, a number of civilians were killed. After these operations, a new firebase was constructed at the junction of the Waygal and Pech valleys (McGrath, p. 92-93; Walling, p. 96-98). SOF sought out local powerbrokers for intelligence, but differentiating whether the information they received was fueled by local rivalries or was legitimate proved difficult. (Morgan, p. 3-4). Korengalis[2] saw Safis[3] in the Pechas rivals in the timber trade, and viewed SOF as allies of their commercial rivals. The timber trade, one of the region’s few profitable enterprises, generated complex networks of foresters and timber smugglers controlled by various strongmen throughout the province. The trade would be criminalized in 2006, which reinforced corruption among government officials and the aggregation of power among local strongmen. By 2010, it is clear that insurgents had muscled into the timber trade, using revenues to supply weapons and ammunition to their fighters. Prior to that point, however, insurgent networks were involved in the timber business, but their share of the trade was less significant (Morgan, p. 2; Bader, et. al.). According to one elder from the Korengal, the willingness of the US military to intervene based on Safi tips caused an increasingly insurrectionist climate in that valley – which boiled over when an airstrike killed civilians (Trevithick &Seckman, n.p.).

COIN Pech Valley

FOB Blessing near Nangalam looking south and east at Pech – Photo by the author

Unit and command rotation resulted in different interpretations of strategic imperatives in the region. 2006 saw a significant increase in US resources in the Pech, primarily from conventional military units, attempting to enable a long-term government presence in the valley and neighboring Nuristanas directed by senior leaders (Morgan, p. 6; Wadle, p. 9-10). At lower levels of command, units developed different theories about the nature of the insurgency –whether it was a reaction to their own presence or encouraged by militants they should pursue (Morgan, p. 6). Coalition forces nonetheless began to occupy enduring positions on the valley floor to protect road construction crews. Roads were vital to addressing the pressing resupply challenges in the valley with extremely limited helicopter resources. The roads were also viewed as essential development projects meeting counterinsurgency objectives (Morgan, p. 7; Wadle, p. 12). As coalition forces expanded into the Pech, insurgents resisted and sought safety in remote tributary valleys. Commanders responded by placing combat units deeper into these valleys to disrupt militants (Wadle, p. 14). The potential assistance offered by the presence of additional resources was mitigated by the need to push those troops farther into the insurgent sanctuaries. Several rotations of units focused on development goals on the one hand alongside kinetic operations against insurgent groups. Each rotation, however, pursued a different balance of priorities, although this is understandable given the seemingly intractable nature of the problem (Wadle, p. 14-23; 26-27). By 2008 one commander estimated that 120 bases in Eastern Afghanistan were manned by about 150 rifle platoons – an extremely thin dispersion of forces that required constant adjustment to support myriad operational needs (Wanat, p. 15).[4]

Consolidation and Withdrawal:

Despite the relatively recent decision in 2006 to invest heavily in spreading the central government’s influence into remote parts of Nuristan, subsequent commanders would decide that these districts were too difficult to resupply, and too taxing on manpower. By the Fall of 2007, coalition positions had been severely pressured. The leadership responsible for forces in the Waygal Valley and part of the Pech Valley determined to consolidate Waygal positions at the village of Wanat, near the northern extension of the road leading to the Pech. This unit was pressed for time in conducting this operation as an impending transition to the successor unit was fast approaching. The operation to construct a new base was interrupted by a massed attack on the emerging Wanat position in July 2008 (Wanat, p. 33-41). While Wanat had benefited from the construction of two bridges under a previous unit, attitudes in the village had changed after civilians were killed during a coalition strike targeting militants. The elders around Wanat had also been unhappy with the potential insurgent attention this base would bring to the area (Wanat, p. 20-23, 48-50). After the attack, plans to construct a base at Wanat were abandoned.

001-waygal-valley

Waygal Valley – Photo by the author

Subsequent units continued to close positions in the tributary valleys of the Pech River. By late Spring 2010, the series of bases built to manage the restive Korengal valley had been closed with the exception of the base closest to the Pech. In late 2010, a multi-phased operation, Bulldog Bite, struck several valleys in succession to degrade insurgent capabilities in preparation for the remaining bases of the Pech to be handed over to Afghan forces or destroyed. A key reason for the operation was the risk coalition forces would face during the departure from these bases, located on low ground along the river valleys. Moreover, these operations were intended to provide Afghan forces with space to take over responsibility for the valley. The handover of the Pechbases to Afghan forces that followed Bulldog Bite was not initially successful. The next US Army unit to assume responsibility for the area viewed the Pech Valley as a center for instability, and the Afghan National Army initially was unable to effectively operate in parts of the valley after US departure. Similar to units in previous years, the remote valleys and high mountains were seen as ideal militant safehavens. US forces returned to the Pech, with large scale operations and smaller and more permanent missions acting as advisors. A gradual “re-departure” process was conducted through 2012 and 2013. (Morgan, p. 8; Wadle, p. 28-37).

Conclusion:

This brief discussion of the occupation of and withdrawal from the Pech Valley by US forces neglects much of the bloody and laborious details. The Pech and its tributary valleys would become some of the most dangerous for coalition and Afghan forces during the war. These remote and minimally resourced bases experienced repeated difficulties in their dual objectives of fighting insurgents and enabling Afghan government influence. Dispersing platoons along unimproved roads across many kilometers of rugged terrain seems like a poorly thought-out plan with the benefit of hindsight. Counterinsurgency studies, available to commanders even before the revised field manual in 2006, would have indicated that this type of warfare requires time and resources. Small development projects and talented small-unit leadership were able to achieve some success during this campaign. But, given the lack of resources, the odds were severely stacked against these commanders.

By 2007, when US forces had their most extensive footprint in the region, intelligence personnel believed they were facing belligerents comprised of local commercial interests, local insurgents, and fighters aligned with factions from other parts of the world including Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Wanat, p. 8-10). Counterterror missions continue in the region, though now these missions are often carried out by drones. Al Qaeda has continued to use the Watapur and the region in general as a sanctuary (Morgan, p. 9). It is difficult to determine, for obvious reasons, exactly when the most notorious groups occupied the region and whether US forces were partially responsible for this infiltration. But, the outcome is not up for debate; these elements did establish a significant presence in the area.

As Wesley Morgan points out, the US military’s analysis of operations in these valleys has often centered on improving tactical performance, with less attention devoted to strategic or political lessons. It is perhaps not surprising that soldiers advanced the tactical toolkit more rapidly than the developmental one. He also correctly points out that the US military did not adequately train and employ Afghan forces in this region, and indeed in the entire country, until very late in the in the campaign (Morgan, p. 8). There are many reasons for this, and Morgan covers the topic well, but the US did not have a suitable relief force in place by 2011.

In the campaign for the Pech River Valley, there is a repeated note of strategic dissonance. Senior commanders responsible for the campaign referred to aspects of the mission as “economy-of-force” (Wadle, p. 11; Wanat, p. 12, 40, 195). That might have been necessarily the case, given the resources available, but it is not compatible with the other stated intent of expanding the reach of the central government deep into Nuristan and Kunar. The commander who implemented the first Pech departure, in 2010 and 2011, saw no “counterinsurgency victory” in the region (Jaffe, n.p.). The strategic deficit from this dissonance was repaid only with blood and treasure.


About the Author:

Chris Zeitza former member of the U.S. Army who served in military intelligence. He deployed to Kunar in May, 2010 for one year. He has a Master’s degree in Diplomacy, from Norwich University. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Works cited:

Bader, H. R., Hanna, C., Douglas, C., & Fox, J. D. (2013) “Illegal Timber Exploitation and Counterinsurgency Operations in Kunar Province of Afghanistan: A Case Study Describing the Nexus Among Insurgents, Criminal Cartels, and Communities Within the Forest Sector,” Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 32 (4), p. 329-353. Accessible here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10549811.2013.767913

Giustozzi, A. (2008). Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. New York: Colombia University Press.

Jaffe, G. (2010, December 27). “U.S. Troops Battle to Hand Off a Valley Resistant to Afghan Governance,” The Washington Post, Accessed from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/26/AR2010122602622.html?sid=ST2011022406934

Kilcullen, D. (2009). Taliban and Counter-Insurgency in Kunar. In Giustozzi, A. (Ed.), Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field. p. 231-245. New York: Colombia University Press.

McGrath, J. J. (2011). Operation Strong Eagle: Combat Action in the Ghakhi Valley. In Wright, D. P. (Ed.), Vanguard of Valor: Small Unit Actions in Afghanistan. p. 91-130. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center. Accessed from: http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/VanguardOfValor.pdf

Morgan, W. (2015) “Ten Years in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley,” United States Institute of Peace Special Report, accessible here:http://www.usip.org/publications/2015/09/22/ten-years-in-afghanistan-s-pech-valley

Trevithick, M. &Seckman, D. (2014). “Heart of Darkness: Into the Korengal,” The Daily Beast, Accessed online: http://www.thedailybeast.com/feature/2014/heart-of-darkness-two-americans-journey-to-enter-the-talibans-korengal-valley.html

United States Army Combat Studies Institute. (2010). Wanat: Combat Action in Afghanistan, 2008. Kansas, Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center. Accessible from: http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/Wanat.pdf

Wadle, R. W. (2014). Hammer Down: The Battle for the Watapur Valley, 2011. Kansas, Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, US Army Combined Arms Center. Accessible from: http://www.benning.army.mil/Library/content/HammerDown.pdf

Walling, M. G. (2015) Enduring Freedom, Enduring Voices: US Operations in Afghanistan. Bloomsbury Publishing, Accessed from: https://books.google.com/books?id=v6aqCwAAQBAJ&dq=operation+mountain+resolve&source=gbs_navlinks_s


[1] A note on the use of “Taliban”: The insurgency in the east was not directed by the Quetta Shura, the Taliban of Mullah Omar’s governing body located in Quetta, Pakistan. In the east, there were many different militia factions competing or coordinating as they saw fit. Determining which faction(s) were infiltrating and under whose authority was a challenge then and remains one now. See Kilcullen, p. 231-232 for a similar remark.

[2]Korengalis are inhabitants of the Korengal Valley, a tributary of the Pech Valley. They speak a distinct language from their neighbors and have been widely characterized in the media as insular. There are other valleys in the region that could be described as such and it would be incorrect to portray Korengalis as uniquely isolationist. In reality, the region as a whole is sparse and alliances shift. See Kilcullen, p. 233 for a similar remark.

[3] The Safis are a prominent Pashtun tribe from the region. Their history has been portrayed in David B. Edwards work, including “Before Taliban” and “Heroes of the Age.” The Korengalis contend that the Safis used coalition forces to push the former out of the lucrative timber trade.

[4] David Kilcullen’s case study onKunar(c. 2008) provides a snapshot of the Pech road project and the logic behind this effort from a counterinsurgency perspective. Brigade, Battalion and Provisional Reconstruction Team leadership saw the road as a patronage opportunity for traditional elders to reclaim influence from insurgents (Kilcullen, p. 238). At the time of Dr. Kilcullen’s visits, security in the Pech had improved but operations in the Waygal and Korengal were increasingly difficult.

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