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Afghanistan War: Should we stay or should we go?

Photos: As withdrawal from Pech Valley is debated, fears of a Taliban resurgence grow.

PECH VALLEY, Afghanistan — Pvt. Kyle “Bobby” Boucher stretched out sorely, groaning away a rough night of sleep out in eastern Afghanistan’s frigid air.

Gingerly, he stepped his way through the splayed legs of fellow soldiers who slept heavily or sat smoking. Upon reaching his intended spot, a rock overhanging the burn pit where soldiers relieve themselves, he cast a wary look back at Ranger Rock, the name given by U.S. forces to the ridgeline angling down into the mouth of the Korengal Valley.

“Man, I so don’t want to get shot through the back taking a piss on Christmas morning,” he said, to no one in particular.

It was the first of five days that the soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were pulling watch duty up at Observation Post Pride Rock, a compact perch of sandbags, plywood and dirt that stands as mountaintop guardian for Combat Outpost Michigan, in Kunar Province’s Pech Valley. It also happened to be Dec. 25, a fact that the soldiers were acutely aware of, but jokingly nonchalant about.

“You know the song ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas’?” one soldier asked. “Well I don’t think that applies here.”

Similar quips were thrown around for the remainder of the day among the 12 U.S. soldiers stationed at the Pride Rock as they carried on with daily chores — scanning ridgelines, cleaning weapons, checking radio frequencies.

The reality was clear and left unspoken. On one of the most dangerous and vulnerable vantage points still held by coalition forces in the eastern front of the war, Christmas just didn’t seem all that important.

Since U.S. forces established a full-time presence in the Pech Valley in 2006, the area has discerned itself as one of toughest fights that the conflict, approaching a decade in length, has had to offer.

Now, in line with the International Security Assistance Force’s wider strategy of focusing attention on areas with greater population centers, the NATO forces manning the four bases in the Pech Valley are now waiting to hear if they will be ordered to withdraw from the area.

“Right now if you did a cost-benefit analysis, there’s an argument that the potential to win here is less than in other areas,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Ryan, battalion commander of the 101st Airborne in the Pech Valley.

After nine months of heavy fighting and more than a dozen soldiers under his command killed, Ryan understands better than most the difficulties of their mission.

“Peace in the valley is not really something we’re shooting for,” the Colonel said. “Defeating the insurgency here in this valley, that is a condition that is probably beyond our capability.”

The insurgents — a loose alliance of domestic and foreign groups including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Salafi jihadists and local militias — have proven a resolute force in the area. Taking advantage of the mountainous terrain and proximity to the Pakistan border, fighters are able to strike coalition bases and patrols with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns before retreating into nearby valleys or seeking refuge across the border.

At Pride Rock, attacks come frequently and often without warning. Insurgents, firing from opposing valley walls, often escape over the ridges or into villages nestled in the valley floor before soldiers stationed at Pride Rock can receive artillery support from the mortar team at neighboring Combat Outpost Michigan or the howitzers at nearby Forward Operating Base Blessing.

“[The insurgents] are not dumb,” said Pvt. Kyle Boucher, speaking from his guard post at Pride Rock. “They’re good fighters, they’ve been doing it for years. They defeated the Russians here, in this same area.”

“The best thing about being out here is it’s so often kinetic that you don’t have a choice,” he said. “You know shit’s going to happen so you’re always alert, you’re always ready. Rather than being somewhere where sometime you get shot at, sometime they ambush you, well no … they’re always hitting us.”