Less than six months ago, the Army largely pulled out of Afghanistan’s Pech Valley after concluding that the region was no longer strategically important. More than 100 American troops had been killed there, making the valley one of the most dangerous regions in all of Afghanistan.
“Only about .2 percent of the population in the east is in that valley,” Maj. Gen. John Campbell, then-commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, said in February. “We have to realign our forces to better protect the Afghan people.”
Now, U.S. soldiers are back, albeit in smaller numbers.
In July, troops from the 25th Infantry Division returned to the valley, located in Konar province. By September, a company of soldiers from the division’s 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment will be in the Pech, according to Stars and Stripes, which recently embedded a reporter with U.S. forces in the region.
Whereas the Army had a battalion of about 800 troops in the valley before, it will have only perhaps a couple of hundred troops this time.
“We’re coming here to set the conditions for a transition that will support the Afghan army and Afghan police in providing security,” Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, told Stars and Stripes in explaining the return.
As Stars and Stripes’ Martin Kuz notes, that explanation echoes the rationale given by Army leaders since the United States first pushed into the valley years ago.
Indeed, the counterinsurgency campaign in the region had been widely supported within the Army since 2006, when U.S. forces established a series of small outposts there. It was a well-intentioned effort at improving life for villagers and gradually bringing them under the umbrella of a strong, coherent Afghan government.
But Douglas Ollivant, a counterinsurgency adviser to Campbell, writing for The Post’s Outlook section just three months ago, said the Army was wrong.
“In retrospect, the attempt to extend the state’s authority into the Pech was folly,” said Ollivant, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “Kabul’s nascent government, struggling with corruption and basic competence, will not be able to administer the Pech for a generation. Instead, weak states should limit their reach while increasing their capabilities in areas they already control. They should develop more integrated economies in core urban areas and improve the schools near the cities and on the roads between them.”
Lt. Col. Chad Carroll, a spokesman for NATO’s regional command in eastern Afghanistan, said that even though U.S. forces had largely pulled out of the Pech as part of a realignment process, there is a continued need for them to play more of a “partnership role” with Afghan forces, known as ASNF, in the valley.
“What we’re trying to do when we go up and partner is to make sure the ASNF is ready to meet the challenge,” he said.
Periodic raids into remote valleys are aimed at preventing insurgents from expanding into areas more crucial to the war effort. But in places where U.S. forces no longer have an established presence, insurgents often have time to regroup.
In the Pech, early signs are that insurgents in the area are just as eager to resist as they were before.
In July, they downed an Army helicopter, injuring but not killing any troops. Two days later, they launched mortar rounds at a recently re-established U.S. base.