In eastern Afghanistan’s Konar province, particularly in the Pech Valley, these three wars have intermingled, revealing the limits and possibilities of U.S. strategy. And as the nation reassesses its approach to Afghanistan with the death of Osama bin Laden, the reassignment of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA and President Obama’s summer deadline for beginning a troop drawdown, the Pech offers unique insights on this third war — and how to avoid being drawn into more versions of it.
When American forces pushed into Konar’s Pech, Korengal and Waygal valleys in 2006, counterinsurgency was the brilliant new U.S. strategy that promised to turn around a faltering war. Well-meaning commanders and their advisers built more than 40 bases there, constructing roads to share the benefits of civilization with the region’s tribes. The people would then be secured and controlled by the Afghan government, the plan went, making it difficult for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to operate nearby.
This month, however, the last U.S. forces will close their bases and withdraw from the Pech Valley. These are the final troops to leave the northern Konar valley complex — made famous by the 2010 film “Restrepo” — marking the end of a five-year effort to extend the central government’s influence to these isolated regions. The outgoing U.S. commander of forces in eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. John Campbell (with whom I worked as counterinsurgency adviser), made perhaps the most understated comment about the Pech when he once quipped, “It is different than other places.”
Perhaps a better strategy — better than the one that has cost more than 100 U.S. military lives and billions of dollars in that valley alone — would have been to let it stay different.
Mountainous regions throughout the world tend to be refuges for those who have opted out of mainstream society, whether voluntarily withdrawing or fleeing from real or perceived oppression. There are the Kurds in Turkey; the Karen, Wa and Lisu minorities of Burma; and the Scotch-Irish of the Appalachians. They live in the hills precisely because the terrain is, or was until recently, an undesirable place for the state to incorporate. They believe that integration into a state means slavery, corruption, taxation, conscription and immorality — and an end to their way of life.
In Afghanistan, such traditional groups — the Korengali, the Nuristanis and the more isolated tribes of Pashtuns — have been waging a generations-old conflict with the Kabul-based modernizers, and political control and family life have been the main points of dispute. For example, the 1929 Afghan civil war began when the Shinwari Pashtun tribe attacked the provincial capital of Jalalabad to protest new laws that challenged local traditions and family life, most notably the status of women, and attempted to impose taxation. These groups are proudly unassimilated into the larger structure of Afghan civilization, such as it is.