Task Force Saber soldiers wonder if Afghan troops will stay at remote border crossing after they leave
GOWARDESH VALLEY, Afghanistan — An operation by the 173rd Airborne Brigade to secure this key valley in eastern Afghanistan and rebuild a border police station destroyed by insurgents last year is nearing completion.
U.S. officers with the brigade’s Task Force Saber say they plan to begin pulling out the first U.S. troops in the coming days.
Nearly 200 U.S. and Afghan government troops have been in the Gowardesh Valley and in the surrounding mountains for the past two weeks.
U.S. officers hope that by rebuilding a small Afghan border police outpost at a bridge over the Kunar River they can maintain control over the Gowardesh and restart improvements on the main road into Nuristan province. They say a widened and improved road into Nuristan will bring jobs and badly needed economic development into the remote mountainous region and help undercut the insurgency there.
It’s a key strategic goal for U.S. forces in this remote province of Afghanistan, which has always remained largely beyond the authority of government control and whose people have fiercely resisted foreign incursions into their territory in the past.
Dubbed Operation Mountain Highway II, it is Task Force Saber’s largest operation to date.
Afghan border police abandoned the Gowardesh outpost last August after insurgents threatened to kill them if they did not leave.
With construction on the border station nearly complete, U.S. troops were supposed to start pulling out of the Gowardesh two days ago. But their departure has been postponed for a few days at least. The goal is to leave the Afghan border forces in control of the valley, with only a minimal U.S. presence in a couple of outposts in the mountains overlooking the valley.
The commander of Workhorse Troop, Capt. John Williams, who is overseeing the operation, said once U.S. troops begin leaving the Gowardesh, they will pull out in stages over a period of a couple of weeks, gradually handing over more responsibilities to the Afghan border police. The goal is that once most U.S. forces are gone, the Afghans will be confident enough at that point in their ability to hold the area that they will remain.
“The true test of this is going to be if these guys stay when we leave,” said Williams, 37, of Chickasha, Okla. “We’re trying to mitigate them packing up and following us when we pull out of here.”
On previous operations meant to secure the Gowardesh and nearby areas, Afghan border police have abandoned their positions as soon as U.S. soldiers pulled out, Williams said.
“We’ve had them beat us down the mountain,” he said.
Nuristan province is one of the most remote and inaccessible regions in eastern Afghanistan. Its rugged terrain consists of sweeping, razor-backed mountains and narrow, plunging valleys. There are few roads, and most of these are accessible only by small four-wheeled drive trucks.
Nuristan was the last province in Afghanistan to convert to Islam, doing so only in the late 1800s, and the region has always been considered wild and lawless. Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s started in Nuristan province, and Soviet forces suffered horrendous losses in the region and in Kunar province to the south.
U.S. forces have been ambushed every other time they’ve come into the Gowardesh Valley and nearby areas of Nuristan, and they’ve suffered a number of soldiers killed and wounded here.
What’s different this time is that U.S. and Afghan government troops have the support of tribal elders throughout Nuristan, who’ve grown tired of the insurgency and want to see government control established and for economic development to take root, according to U.S. officers.