Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Afghan Mountain War

Pech Valley, northeast Afghanistan - Afghanistan is a mountainous
country, with hills of the south giving way to mountains of the Hindu
Kush in the northeast. Here in this northeastern province named Kunar
it is incredibly rough and rugged. Only 13 percent of the
countryside is arable, says its governor. The rest of the province is
steep mountainside - good for woodcutting and lousy for pretty much
every other kind of living. (And even the wood is dwindling at an
alarming rate)
If this country is mountainous, then the war in this country will be
won in the mountains. But how do you win a war in the mountains? Why
in the valleys of course.
Some valleys the war is being won, in others it's not.
Example number one is a valley where the war is not being won.
In Kapisa province northeast of Kabul there is a valley named
Afghanya, after one of the villages near its mouth. It is a wild
place, where the security forces now fear to tread.
But this past spring, a small force of 50 or so national guardsmen
from Pennsylvania did tread that valley, which is 12 or so miles long
and has a couple of side valleys. These guardsmen walked it because,
they say, walking valleys is the best way to pacify them. You get to
know the locals, they get to know you, and it is coincidentally safer
than driving Humvees, which are vulnerable to roadside bombs.
In Afghanya the guardsmen walked, and the insurgents fought back.
About 100 insurgents live in the valley, and they had reinforcements.
Many of the firefights started when the guardsmen walked or drove up
the valley, and were ambushed on the way back.
Over the course of 4 months and about 40 firefights about a third of
the guardsmen were wounded, several seriously. No one was killed.
The insurgents suffered several hundred killed, from a combination of
air power and ground fire.
By the end, the guardsmen pushed the insurgents farther back into the
valley, and started talking to the villagers about bringing in
projects, such as wells and roads.
Then the guardsmen switched out and were replaced by roughly 350
French soldiers. The French soldiers are nice, personable people, but
they stopped going into the Afghanya valley. They don't like to walk,
and they seemed afraid of getting their thinly armored vehicles blown
up by roadside bombs.
With that number of soldiers the French should have put in
observation posts, pushing a permanent presence into the valley, say
the guardsmen, but they didn't. Instead they now concentrate on
patrolling the main road that runs through the province, rather than
venturing into the valleys like Afghanya that branch off that main
Now the coalition is not welcome in Afghanya valley. The insurgents
have regrouped and no security forces ever go more than 2 kilometers
The guardsmen say it's a crying shame, but there isn't much they can
do about it. They were reassigned to protect a group of soldiers that
coordinate projects such as wells and schools in the same area. They
say security there is currently hopeless.
That is one failure.
The Korengal valley, a few miles from this base here in the Pech
valley, Kunar Province, is currently another failure.
It is nightmare. The locals dislike any foreigners, though they
tolerate the Taliban. The tiny US bases in the Korengal are under
constant attack. The US goal of pushing a road into the Korengal has
been on hold for 90 days, say the soldiers.
The road would connect the Korengal to another valley farther south,
bringing trade and prosperity, but it is stalled. The official plan
calls for the road project to be finished in 18 months, but the
reality will be more like 7 years, says the local US commander. He
says the Korengal isn't important enough to get too fussed over, and
is not the key to the region.
The Korengal then is failure number two.
In contrast, the Pech valley is the main valley from which the
Korengal runs. The Pech valley is doing well. It received a paved
road about 2 years ago, running its entire length. It runs on the
north side of the river that flows down the valley. A second road is
now being built on the south side of the river. Five US and Afghan
bases run along its length. These days the insurgents sit on the
slopes of the surrounding hillsides and lob down mortars and rockets
onto the bases. But they rarely hit anything worthwhile, though the
noise is impressive.
Despite the insurgent activity, the Pech and the town at its mouth,
Asadabad, is seeing a vigorous infusion of trade because of the road.
The villages at the valley are quiet, and more wells, roads, and water
projects are going in. Progress is being made.
The Pech then is a limited but growing success, and it has only been
about 2 years since development first arrived.
War in the valleys is tough. It requires manpower, both Afghan and
American, to build bases, establish security and then it requires
money to bring development, roads, wells and schools to villages.
(The next step is stamping out the corruption that the first wave of
government presence inevitably brings with it.)
It is all time consuming and costly. In Kunar, province-wide the US
spends $80 million on civil projects in a heavy year, and $50 million
on an average year.
Where bases, security, and development all coincide, the locals do
respond. Where they do not, the war grinds on.
In a mountainous country, the war is won or lost in the valleys.
America needs to hope that there are more winning valleys like the
Pech and fewer losing ones like Afghanya or the Korengal.
Success takes time, money and troops. For 6 years, from 2001-2006,
the right elements were too scarce here. That may now be changing.
More troops will be needed, and plenty of cash too, to make it all