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'They Feel Like Outsiders and They Don't Want to Be'
"They have been cut off for a year," Pearl said. "They feel like outsiders and they don't want to be."
'Just Not Listening'
A few miles south of Wanat, the violent Korengal Valley shows the perils of persistence. Instead of leaving, U.S. troops have for the past several years battled the Taliban to a bloody stalemate. Foreign fighters and the Taliban have kept the fight going by paying villagers to attack U.S. and Afghan army troops. "Right now, we are the economy in the Korengal Valley," Pearl said.
The United States has spent millions of dollars on attempts to pave the road that leads into the valley in an effort to jump-start the local economy and provide residents with an alternative to fighting. But the project has been stalled for more than two years because of violence. Last month, the United States paid a private Afghan security company $2 million to protect construction workers in the valley. A few days into the contract, insurgents stormed the security company's outposts, killed six Afghan guards and took dozens of rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
"The Korengal really functions on its own," Pearl said. "The people there don't want to be connected to the rest of the country. So roads don't mean anything to them. . . . The population there is just not listening to us."
After years of frustration, countless firefights and at least a dozen U.S. fatalities, Pearl has concluded that his best option is to leave the Korengal sometime next year. "I have a full-sized company dedicated to a valley with a population of 4,200 people," he said. "I am sure there are valleys in Afghanistan with 100,000 people and no U.S. troops. You have got to ask yourself: Why? Why is this one valley so strategically important?"
The U.S. commander's main focus is the Pech River Valley, which is home to the vast majority of the people in his sector. Over the past several years, the United States has pumped more than $40 million into the valley to pave roads and is starting to see signs of progress. The markets along the main road are bustling, and U.S. officials said they have begun to detect the faint pulse of a functioning Afghan government in the area.
Pearl's hope is that Afghans in the Waygal, Korengal and other small valleys that feed the Pech River will see the progress in the main valley and want some of the same. The danger remains that unrest in the smaller valleys will spill into the Pech River Valley, which is still a violent place. Afghan trucks, carrying supplies for U.S. and Afghan military bases, are regularly attacked when they travel without security on the main road.
Usually the truck drivers wait at the opening of the valley for a U.S. Army patrol to pass and then they follow it, a practice soldiers have dubbed "strap hanging." Lining the sides of the road are the remains of scorched trucks belonging to drivers too impatient to wait for an informal escort.
Enemy fighters from the five smaller valleys along the Pech often descend to launch attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces from the high ground on either side. Assaults have risen in each of the past three years, and during its first 75 days in Afghanistan, Pearl's battalion suffered four fatalities and 50 Purple Hearts were awarded to wounded soldiers.
The most recent of those deaths came in early September when insurgents, armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, opened fire on a U.S. patrol and killed Sgt. Youvert Loney.
On Sept. 17, after meeting with the Wanat district governor, Pearl sped down the Pech valley's main road to attend Loney's memorial service.
About 100 soldiers had gathered in a large maintenance bay. Pictures of Loney, 28, were beamed onto a white sheet on a wall in the building. "In Loney's first six months in my squad, I think his only words were, 'Roger, Sergeant,' and 'I'm good,' " Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Shealy said. During winter, Loney, a native of Micronesia, was more expansive: "It's cold, Sergeant, but I'm good."
His friends described how a grenade slammed into his Humvee in 2006 during his first tour of Iraq, injuring his back. At Fort Carson, Colo., he hid his pain from superiors because he was concerned he might be disqualified from deploying to Afghanistan. In late 2008, his wife gave birth to their first son, Youvert Jr. Six months later, he left for the war.
When the eulogies were done, an honor detail fired 21 shots. A flock of birds, startled by the noise, flew over the maintenance bay where Pearl tried to console Loney's fellow soldiers as they headed back to their base. "Stay strong," Pearl said as he placed his palm on the back of a distraught soldier's neck.
The Taliban fighters who had killed the sergeant came from one of the capillary valleys. "The Sergeant Loneys make it hard, but you can't let these small valleys become personal," Pearl said. He was determined to keep his battalion focused on the main Pech River Valley.
For Brostrom, the father of the platoon leader killed at Wanat, the village and the surrounding Waygal Valley will always be personal. The last time U.S. forces were in the village, it was still smoldering from the battle.
"That town was leveled. Buildings were destroyed. People's homes were gone, and then the military decided it wasn't important," Brostrom said. "What I'd really like to know is: What did my son and what did those other sons die for?"