U.S. pulling forces out of Pech Valley

By STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS Published: February 25, 2011


The U.S. military is pulling back most of its forces from the remote Pech Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, ground it once insisted was central to the war effort, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

The withdrawal formally began Feb. 15, the Times wrote. The military projects that it will take about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to more populated areas.

In April 2010, the U.S. closed its outposts in the adjoining Korengal Valley because it was too violent and didn’t seem to fit in with the overall counterinsurgency mission.

Now the Pech Valley outposts are being shuttered for much the same reason — the population in the Pech is too small to spend time trying to win hearts and minds and the insurgent resistance is too strong to justify the modest military gains.

And it is an emotional issue for American troops, who fear their service and sacrifices could be squandered. At least 103 American soldiers have died in or near the valley’s maze of steep gullies and soaring peaks, according to a count by The Times, and many times more have been wounded, often severely.

Stars and Stripes reporter James Foley embedded with the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment in the Pech Valley in late 2010 while a freelance reporter for the GlobalPost.

In September, Lt. Col. Joe Ryan talked about the frustrations and doubtful utility of fighting in Pech.

“My theory, I don’t think it’s too outlandish, is that we provide all these insurgent groups with a common enemy, that helps them,” Ryan said in a video interview from FOB Blessing. “Our presence almost helps them combine their forces, combine their efforts against us,” he said.

While the commanders wrestled with the merits of the U.S. presence, the soldiers, interviewed at COP Michigan in September 2010, were conflicted.

“My personal view is that we’re going to give that much more ground to the anti-government forces in this country,” said Spc. Bill Wilder, 24. “I really don’t think it makes much sense personally, but that’s why I don’t make those decisions.”

“A lot of people would take it personally,” Sgt. Kelly O’Donnell said of the then anticipated pullout. “They would all ask why were we here then in the first place. ’Cause we lost some boys. How do you explain that to your guys?”

Military officials say they are sensitive to those perceptions, the Times noted.

“People say, ‘You are coming out of the Pech; I prefer to look at it as realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people,” said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander for eastern Afghanistan. “I don’t want the impression we’re abandoning the Pech.”

Ultimately, the decision to withdraw reflected a stark — and controversial — internal assessment by the military that it would have been better served by not having entered the high valley in the first place.

“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” an American military official familiar with the decision told the Times. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”

While American officials say the withdrawal matches the latest counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, Afghan officials worry that the move amounts to an abandoning of territory where multiple insurgent groups are well established, and where Afghans fear they may not be ready to defend on their own.

Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, who is in Washington for high-level meetings, expressed concern about what would happen if U.S. troops left long-established bases in the Pech Valley.

“It will be difficult for Afghans to hold these areas on their own,” Wardak told The Washington Post. “The terrain there is very tough. “I personally fought against the Soviets in that area.”

Afghans see the Pech Valley and surrounding Kunar province as key terrain because the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s first gained significant momentum in those areas. “We have to be very careful in how we manage this area,” Wardak said.

American forces first came to the valley in force in 2003, The Times wrote, following the trail of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-i-Islami group, who, like other prominent insurgent leaders, has been said at different times to hide in Kunar. They did not find him, though Hezb-i-Islami is active in the valley.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and Stars and Stripes reporter James Foley contributed to this report.