The helo flight to Camp Wright in Asadabad took us to the central front of the counterinsurgency battle for RC East. Kunar is the most dangerous province in the East, yet also features some vibrant development efforts and an energetic moderate reformist governor. Along Kunar's river valley, development, governance and security follow the growth of bridges and roads. In the northern valleys, a mix of tribal and Taliban insurgents challenge US extension of the security bubble at every ridge.
There is no denying the opportunity in Kunar. Along the Kunar river valley and where there are roads, the 3-1 is effectively applying security operations capacity building, and reconstruction projects with strong results. This is indicative of the 3-1 leadership's strong emphasis on non-lethal operations and effects. One example is the Kunar construction corps, a program which offers young military age men throughout the East a small stipend and the opportunity to learn a range of construction skills. Every graduate is immediately hired by one of the plentiful construction companies building infrastructure in Kunar.
The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) works well with moderate and reform minded Governor Wahidi and various district governors and ministry officials. Wahidi is slowly building legitimacy by delivering (thanks to the PRT) strong flows of projects to the province while also carrying a strong anti-corruption banner.
But central Kunar's development is untenable if the northern valleys can continue to harbor a strong Taliban sanctuary.
In small wars, we talk of human terrain as well as geographical terrain. In both senses, Kunar has some of the roughest, most inaccessible terrain in the world. Deeply isolated, xenophobic, independent tribes occupy steep northern valleys of Gaziabad, Pech, and Korengal with no roads in or out. Tribal conflict and smuggling interests incite violence and well-established collaboration with the Taliban. Attacks on ISAF forces are a daily threat, including major coordinated operations.
Sometimes in COIN, circumstances favor a paradoxical approach. Such may be the case in Korengal, where the short, tough, bearded Korengalis on these steep ridges conjure up the image of Pashtun Gimlis defending Helms Deep. By all accounts, the Korengalis hold no ambitions for global terrorism or an Islamic caliphate. They largely seek to be left alone, sell their timber, and resist control by any foreigner -- foreigner meaning someone from outside their Valley. The Korengal provide Taliban limited sanctuary and transit of their territory as a matter of practical resistance and collaboration against Afghan and ISAF forces attempts to extend control into the Korengal and enforce anti-logging laws. The Korengalis offer fierce resistance and are difficult to engage on projects. One wonders if a better approach would be to look the other way -- in several respects. Pull back US and Afghan forces and seek to de-emphasize ANP and ANBP timber smuggling enforcement in the area. Heck, the US could even offer to buy the timber at a good price if the Korengalis promise to keep the Taliban out of their valley and/or agree to a dialog with the Afghan government on key issues (e.g. when will the trees run out, balancing autonomy with government services, etc). At a minimum, shifting emphasis from the Korengal would enable the Army to apply more resources in Gaziabad and Pech, areas where population security and clear-hold-build strategies may have a better chance. As always, this issue is more complicated than I present so I don't know what is the best strategy -- only US and ANA forces on the ground are in a position to make that determination. But we do know that adaptive, non-linear strategy tied to conflict assessment is essential to COIN and, likely, to success in Afghanistan's East.
Nick Dowling is a small wars policy wonk with experience in OSD, the NSC Staff, NDU, and the contracting sector. He has worked on stability operations for 16 years, most prominently on Bosnia and Kosovo as a Clinton Administration appointee and Iraq and Afghanistan as a DoD contractor. He is currently President of IDS International, a leader in interagency and soft power" types of support to the US military. He is a graduate of Harvard, got his masters at Georgetown, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Although a veteran of print and television media interviews and publications, this is his first foray into SWJ.