The Battle of Wanat | The Valley Today

'They Feel Like Outsiders and They Don't Want to Be'

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Within days of the attack on the U.S. outpost in Wanat last year that killed nine soldiers, American troops withdrew from the Afghan village and the surrounding Waygal Valley. Fourteen months later, they have still not returned.

For the dead soldiers' families and the troops who repelled the assault, the retreat is yet another blow. "My belief is that we should have gone back into Wanat full force after the attack, cordoned off the village and rebuilt it," said retired Col. David P. Brostrom, whose son Jonathan was among those killed in the July 13, 2008, attack.

The increasingly potent insurgency in Afghanistan has forced U.S. commanders to concede that they don't have enough troops to defend a string of isolated outposts established in recent years near the border with Pakistan. On Saturday, insurgents attacked another small base in the eastern part of the country, killing eight American and four Afghan troops.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has decided to pull U.S. troops out of these remote areas and concentrate them in larger cities and villages, where they can focus more on protecting the population and less on pursuing the enemy.

Recent events in Wanat indicate that ceding territory to the Taliban is more effective than maintaining small, vulnerable bases in forbidding terrain. In the past several weeks, U.S. commanders, based about six miles outside the village, have detected growing friction between Wanat residents and the Taliban commanders responsible for last year's attack.

The first signs of discord emerged this summer when local elders convened a shura, or council, to decide whether to participate in the national elections held in late August. The insurgent leaders showed up as well, carrying guns and threatening to kill anyone who cast a ballot, Afghan officials said. The intimidation worked -- the village and the surrounding Waygal Valley didn't record a single vote -- but residents' desire to participate in the elections offered an opening for U.S. and Afghan officials.

In mid-September, Mohammed Usman, the district governor in Wanat, drove down from the mountains to a U.S. base to meet with Afghan government and U.S. military officials, a small sign of estrangement from the Taliban. Usman and Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, the U.S. battalion commander for the area, sat across from each other in a windowless room with creased posters of American Muslims tacked to the wall.

Pearl had heard about the tension in the Waygal Valley and was determined to prod the governor into action. "Ever since the attack, there have been no roads, health clinics or schools built in your district," Pearl told him. "A few bad people have cost the Waygal Valley a lot of money and development. They are taking away your power. We have to stop it."

The battalion commander wanted help tracking down three key insurgent leaders who had planned the Wanat attack. As soon as those men were dead, he promised to resume spending on development projects and to make sure the governor received all the credit. "We'll show the people of the Waygal Valley that you can take better care of them" than the enemy, Pearl said.

The governor listened impassively. "I am living in the middle of these men," he replied in a voice that was barely a whisper. He said he was being watched.

As they parted, Pearl said he would fund a small footbridge at the Wanat district center, where the attack occurred, and gave the governor a hunting knife decorated with an eagle.

Since the meeting, other village elders have continued to petition the Americans for assistance. And Usman recently asked another district governor, who is on good terms with Pearl, to intercede with the U.S. commander on his behalf.

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