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

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; A01

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.

"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?"

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