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.”
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.
At Pride Rock, the night vision optics the coalition gave to Afghan soldiers disappeared almost immediately. During firefights, Afghan soldiers would go through a far greater amount of ammunition than that of U.S. soldiers, subsequently collecting the brass casings from the spent rounds, which are then used as a tradeable item in the valley bazaars. Eight pieces of this brass, said one soldier, is more than an average daily wage in the district.
A level of distrust between foreigners based in the Pech and the Afghans they work with is palpable. According to some U.S. soldiers at Forward Operating Base Blessing, the largest NATO position in the Pech, local Afghans working on the base have a habit of disappearing on days when insurgent rockets hit the base. How they know, or why they do not pass on intelligence to the command, are questions left unanswered.
For residents of the valley who are employed by the United States, fear of Taliban reprisal runs high, exacerbated by the rumours of an imminent withdrawal. During an attempt to rebuild the road leading into the Korengal, a number of local contractors were killed. The on-base barber at Blessing was killed by insurgents early in the 101st’s rotation. His headless body was discovered floating down river by U.S. soldiers the following day.
“When coalition forces will go from our area, this will be the worst time for us,” said Mohammed Israr, a local from Nangalam district who works with the United States as a cultural adviser. “It was the same when the Russians left, many Afghan nationals working with them were killed after they left.”
Even local elders, many of which have cooperated with coalition forces over the past few years and profited financially from the partnership, are uneasy with the idea of a Pech Valley without U.S. soldiers.
At the end of a routine meeting between soldiers of Charlie Company and Haji Wazir Ghul, an influential elder living in a fortified compound near Forward Operating Base Blessing, the man joked that the Taliban would one day come to castrate him.
Troops weigh in
While the decision on whether to pull out of the Pech is mulled over under the lights of Pentagon conference rooms, soldiers that patrol the winding valleys continue on in limbo. Troops on the ground remain conflicted over expectations that they might be given their walking papers at any time.
“Honestly, from my perspective, I don’t think it would be for the best,” said Staff Sgt. Spencer Townsend, one soldier pulling the five day Christmas rotation at Pride Rock. “It’d kind of make me feel like what we’ve been doing here was for nothing.”
“Out platoon, we’ve had a lot of rough times,” Pfc. Matthew Morgan added. “I think that if we did leave, those people that got hurt and did pass away, I think they would die in vain. They died for no reason if we were to ever leave.”
Whether the withdrawal from the Pech valley does indeed happen in the coming months or not, the coalition’s eventual exit from the valley is an inevitability, as the roll of foreign forces in the future of Afghanistan begins to slowly decrease.
What remains uncertain is the future of those that are left behind after U.S. helicopters make their final sweep of the valley, and how the war in this little, isolated pocket of the country will be remembered.