Small Wars Journal

Learning from the Korengal Valley

This morning, U.S. soldiers departed Afghanistan's Korengal Valley for the last time. This valley, located northeast of Jalalabad and just 20 miles or so from Pakistan, is perhaps the bitterest battleground of the war for U.S. forces. The New York Times summed up America's presence in the valley this way:

Fighting for isolated mountain valleys like this one, even if they are hide-outs for clusters of Taliban, was no longer sustainable. It did more to spawn insurgents than defeat them. Better to put those soldiers in cities and towns where they could protect people and help them connect to the Afghan government, [General McChrystal] reasoned.

"There's never a perfect answer," General McChrystal said as he visited this outpost on April 8 for a briefing as the withdrawal began. "I care deeply about everybody who has been hurt here, but I can't do anything about it. I can do something about people who might be hurt in the future.

"The battle changes, the war changes," he added. "If you don't understand the dynamics you have no chance of getting it right. We've been slower here than I would have liked."

Forty-two American service men died fighting in the Korangal [sic] and hundreds were wounded, according to military statistics. Most died in the three years from 2006 to 2009. Many Afghan soldiers died there as well and in larger numbers since they had poorer equipment. In a war characterized by small, brutal battles, the Korangal had more than its share, and its abandonment now has left soldiers who fought there confronting confusion, anger and pain.


The Korangal Outpost was the third area of eastern Afghanistan where combat outposts closed: In 2007 and 2008 two posts and a smaller satellite base were closed in Kunar's Waygal Valley, and in 2009 two posts were closed in Nuristan Province's Kamdesh region. Along with the main Korangal outpost, five small satellite bases have closed, at least two of them, Restrepo and Vimoto, were named for soldiers who died there.


What will the various players in Afghanistan's drama learn from America's experience in the Korengal Valley?

First, many enemy commanders are likely to conclude that resistance is not futile, that they have a chance to defeat the U.S. military in combat. This is not a criticism of the soldiers and Marines who fought there or of McChrystal's decision to evacuate the Korengal and other outposts. Furthermore, the lack of success the U.S. had in this region is due to peculiar local factors that may not be present elsewhere in the country. It's just a guess at what this news will likely mean (all else equal) for the Taliban's willingness to resist elsewhere.

Second, it puts under strain President Obama's description of the mission in Afghanistan, namely, "We're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven. We're going to reverse the Taliban's momentum. We're going to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces and the Afghan government so that they can begin taking responsibility and gain confidence of the Afghan people." Pulling the U.S. Army out of the Korengal Outpost (and the others in Nuristan and Kunar) doesn't mean that al Qaeda is moving into those places. But it is hard to argue that the U.S. pullout, combined with the new significant restriction on air strikes and direct action raiding, makes it harder for al Qaeda to re-establish safe havens inside Afghanistan.

McChrystal has a finite number of security forces and his strategy is attempting to protect as much of the Afghan population as he can, given what he has to work with. Ceding the Nuristan and Kunar outposts, combined with the limitations on McChrystal's resources, means that there are significant parts of the country under enemy control that the coalition will no longer contest. Again, I'm not criticizing McChrystal's strategy -- in fact, partial Taliban control has always been, and likely always will be the case. But given this, the President and his team should consider a new description of the U.S. mission instead of "we're going to deny al Qaeda safe haven." With parts of the country indefinitely written off, that claim doesn't make sense.

Third, the evacuation of these outposts will likely make it a bit more difficult for U.S. field commanders to reassure the local Afghan partners they are currently working with. There inevitably will be more such modifications to the outpost plan in the future. Local U.S. commanders are undoubtedly working out how to mitigate the first and second order effects of more such withdrawals and adjustments. Local Afghan leaders (including the Taliban) are no doubt doing the same.

Commanders like General McChrystal have to make hard choices in an attempt to maximize the likelihood of success. Hard choices have hard consequences. The U.S. government has chosen to execute a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. A central goal of such a campaign is to establish confidence in America's trustworthiness. McChrystal must be hoping that the tactical adjustments in outposts in Nuristan and Kunar will result in minimal damage to the trust he is trying to build.


The 6/21 posting by Daniel really hit the nail on the head and drew so many parallels from Vietnam. I just saw the movie "Restrepo" which was gut-wrenching but made even more so by the aforementioned parallels. My question is, did the military ever finish the promised "road that will provide jobs/money" for the villagers that so many made the ultimate sacrifice for?


Mon, 06/21/2010 - 5:42pm

Perhaps un-biased historical accounts of the "why" commanders placed Soldiers into the Korengal will justify their decision.

But, if the decisional metric includes stopping cross border infiltration of insurgents...COP's like Dallas, Wanat and the others offered up little obstacles to that end.

Getting close to the people was perhaps the secondary objective..or "winning the hearts and minds of the people.." Well, for those of you who have consumed alot of sweet green tea and fumbled with the dish of dried nuts, especially in the eastern sectors.. know full well there is no winning the hearts and minds..not now...not ever.

That said, the Soldiers who served in the "Valley of Death" will take their earned place in the historical journals of American's wars. Like their World War II exploits to Dak To (RVN)..the Korengal Valley will take its rightful place to pay homage to those who were lost there...and to those who endured.


daniel (not verified)

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 9:38am

I am surprised that nobody mentioned that one of the primary reasons bases were established there in the first place.
This does not come from me, but from the soldiers that fought early on first 1, or 2 yrs of the Korengal bases being established.

There was an operation gone terribly wrong before the base was establshed (see Marcus Luttrel) - He blames this because of letting goat herders go that "happened to come across them" (not likely-taliban were waiting for them and routinely use goad herders as lookouts- that is well known). More likely is that the op was very poorly planed. There was no solid rapid reaction force in place. The intel showing that there was a v. large number of enemy fighters in the area. Com. equipment was poor. Why not, once comprimised by the shepards, consider pulling out? With that amt of known Taliban in the area?? Or bring in fire power- villages were far below and not at risk for col. dam. So this disaster which also resulted in a chinook getting downed and everyone on board killed- Humiliating for the brass. After Lutrel,- who had accepted the honor protection of the village village- putting it at risk for both Taliban retribution and US. So how were the villagers thanked? B52 drops on a nearby village (missed the commander) killing some children, and a few insurgents. That was some very poorly thought out retaliation. Coincidentally following this the Korengal fiasco/bases began. All, it seems, a result of payback and poor decision making. No one will directly admit it, but put the pieces together.
What is even more baffling is that there was an agreement made w/Taliban to allow quiet exit when abandoning the Kornengal Posts in exchange for some fuel on the base and a few other things. Not that I feel that there should have been more loss of life, I would not want to have fought it out- but how do the wounded and dead soldiers from previous tours feel about this?? No win situation our troops were put in an obvious clusterf. Making that agreement meant admission that you do not want to fight in retreat. This war should never have gone beyond a few select covert ops to succesfully eliminate the leaders of Al Qaeda in the first place. And we did have the intel to do that. So it makes one wonder. Who made all these poor decisions in both Afghanistan, and furthermore deciding to open two fronts by going into Iraq without an occupation strategy???

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 04/15/2010 - 12:36am

Allowing the unlimited use of key sanctuaries by the Taliban especially for use in the smuggling of weapons, explosives, and drugs does not bode well in an IW fight.

Especially when the use of the sanctuaries is for the planning/coordination of attacks on cities which is where I think Gen. MC will have major problems.

Giving up those areas to the Taliban will be a major IO enhancer for the Taliban and our spin put on the "repositioning" is definitely for US consumption not for the Afghan population.

The hard truth is that the fight in the Korengal has never been worth the effort. The valley has no inherent value, and there are other 'key sanctuaries' and venues for smuggling, planning, and coordination available to the Taliban. Given our limited resources, we were ill-advised to enter the valley and wise to depart. In any case, I have my doubts the locals will be any more hospitable to the Taliban once we are gone.
Is it an 'IO' victory for the bad guys? Maybe, but sometimes you have to cut your losses, and IO victories tend to prove ephemeral as time goes by.

I can understand the perception problem, but as is noted, we don't ahve the resources to be everywhere, at least initially. That means that the enemy will likley be able to find "safe haven" where we aren't. To have a main effort somewhere means economy of forcve elsewhere. In COIN, economy of force means uncovered areas.

Classic ink spot COIN implies a progressive campaign. There is a geographical aspect to it. Just as Eisenhower's stated mission to was to defeat Germany, he had to start in France and work his way there. To ultimately deny safe havens, we have chosen to start in in populated areas, then work our way out (and by "our" I believe it ultimately has to be Afghan forces that secure those areas).

I'm not really knowledgable on the campaign design, and can't comment on the specific importance of any region in Afghanistan, but this sounds like a logical approach given the resources and situation. However, because we over-reached initally, its hard for any withdrawal to not have negative information implications.

S-2 (not verified)

Thu, 04/15/2010 - 9:00am

The notion that we could never have been successful in the Korengal is only true if we'd attempted to dominate it with the forces considered necessary to do so.

The notion that the valley holds "no inherent value" is simply untrue when considering its proximity to Pakistan, ingress route to Afghanistan, and terrain composition which makes it a perfect sanctuary left to itself.

How much value? I don't know but we'll know over time and that's a function of how the taliban and A.Q. react to our departure. The ANA, of course, is welcome to continue contesting this area on its own. That likelihood? A snowstorm's chance in hell it will even be attempted much less accomplished.

In any case, as dubious as the purposes and commitment for our entry into the Korengal and its sister valleys throughout the Nuristan-Konar reaches, our limited commitment throughout Afghanistan coupled with the fickle partnership we possess with the afghan gov't will sooner or later call to question McChrystal's larger goals of securing the population.

Enclaves while we're there. Prison camps upon our departure.

Pol-Mil FSO (not verified)

Sat, 04/17/2010 - 5:11pm

I think that efforts to persuade the Korengalis to support the government were basically doomed as that well appears to be have poisoned early on. I suspect that the same may also hold true for the Noorzai in Maywand District in Kandahar Province. Unfortunately, withdrawal from Maywand District is not an option since it is bisected by the primary LOC between Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. Is this possibly one of the fallacies of population-centric COIN, i.e. how do you change the sympathies of locals who are probably implacably opposed to the existing government?