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.