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Photos: As withdrawal from Pech Valley is debated, fears of a Taliban resurgence grow.
Since the 101st Airborne took over operations in the Pech, U.S. forces and their Afghan counterparts have seen a spike in enemy activity. Attacks from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are on the rise and casualty numbers are mounting. Even in the winter, a traditionally quiet season for the war, there can be an average of five to 10 significant attacks on coalition positions each day.
A launch pad for insurgents
Combat Outpost Michigan and Pride Rock are among the hardest hit. The primary reason for this, according to sources on the ground, lies in the closing of Korengal Outpost in May of last year.
The hope at the time of the closure was that the Korengali fighters would quit the fight if coalition forces extricated themselves as a source of commonality for otherwise fractured groups opposed to a foreign force. In reality, the Korengal Valley has since become a blind spot in the area for U.S. operations, military officials said, and a launch pad for insurgents to bring the fight to the bases still open, notably Combat Outpost Michigan, which is about three miles away.
“You’re at a bad crossroads right here for valleys and especially since the closure of the Korengal outpost,” said Lt. Armin Farazdaghi, the outpost’s unit leader during the Christmas rotation. “Contact is pretty daily here and over the summer months it was definitely a few times a day, at least.”
A foreseeable concern with the impending Pech withdrawal is the potential of turning the entire valley system that follows the Kunar river into a Korengal-style situation, where the coalition no longer has a presence and, in the void following, the insurgency becomes too hot to handle for Afghan security forces.
Already the local police force and the Afghan National Army are showing signs of anxiety at the possibility of losing their U.S. military help.
“The situation is getting worse day by day,” said Sgt. Tooryalai Jigarkhoon, the Afghan National Army commander at Pride Rock. “Since U.S. forces withdrew from the Korengal Outpost, things have deteriorated greatly here. Now all the Korengali fighters come to this OP to fight us here.”
“If they now leave the Pech, what are we to do? We can’t fight the Taliban by ourselves,” he added.
Maj. Mehboob, acting commander of Afghan forces in the valley, echoed the concern.
“If coalition forces pull out and we are here alone, it is likely that we will confront big problems and we won’t be as successful as we are right now,” he said.
On an operational level, Afghan National Army command has outlined to the coalition two primary requirements before they can hope to take over the fight — air support and artillery. On a battlefield with few roads and terrain that is difficult to traverse on foot or in vehicles, a reliable air force that can provide firepower from above, as well as immediate extraction of casualties, is crucial. To date, Afghans have relied almost solely on American air power.
“We lack some of these things we need from coalition forces,” Mehboob said. “If we’re given those systems, I think one day we’ll be able to carry out any operations by ourselves. But we’re still waiting, that day is coming.”
Lt. Col. Ryan is also aware of such fears in the Afghan security forces.
“The concern from an Afghan perspective, and rightfully so, is that that transition will cause a vacuum of power here that they cannot assume,” he said.
Ryan likens the immediate fallout from a full U.S. withdrawal from the area to the peace following the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the vacuum created by such an exodus would inevitably lead to a rise in tensions between the remaining tribes still competing for influence in the area, he said.
Compared to some other areas of the country, establishment of, and transition to, a centralized government in the Pech has seen a great many hurdles on a local level. U.S. command in the area of operations attributes this to an ingrained isolationist mentality, steeped in tribal traditions going back hundreds of years. One of the few successes U.S. forces lay claim to in the area is building and maintaining the road.
Afghan forces not ready
What is clear to those working daily with Afghan forces is their lack of readiness for a task as great as the one that would be left to them if the U.S. leaves the Pech anytime soon.
Many working side-by-side with the Afghan army out in the field express frustration at the inconsistencies seen from battalion to battalion and many U.S. soldiers are wary of corruption, down to an individual level.