Opinion: The "Valley of Death" wasn't worth fighting for

BOSTON — Standing at the edge of Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Nye was just emerging from 30 hard days in a place that had come to be called the “Valley of Death.”

He was skinny, dirty, scared and exhausted and he peered out at the jagged mountain range ringed with cedar trees and watched the sun setting and shook his head and then just shrugged in despair.

“I don’t know what the hell we’re doing in there. We’re just sitting ducks,” he said.

That was four years ago and the Korangal was a raging front line in the war in Afghanistan. Nye fought hard there and lost friends. He saw firsthand just how impenetrable was the terrain and understood intimately just how ill-defined was the mission. He saw it all.

Wednesday the last American soldier left the Korangal Outpost and abandoned the base in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province near the border of Pakistan. The military brass in Washington finally came to realize the place just wasn’t worth fighting for.

Nye knew that long before they did.

“I think we all wondered what’s the point of all the losses if you’re just going to ultimately give up the ground again,” said Nye, 33, speaking by telephone Thursday after hearing the news that the military was pulling out of the Korangal.

“To be honest, I never understood what there was to gain down in there,” said Nye, who is still assigned to an Army National Guard unit out of Gardner, Mass., and looking at another tour in Afghanistan that is set to begin this summer.

The military planners don’t spend enough time talking to the grunts like Nye who know the “ground truth.” If they did, it wouldn’t have taken so long to finally see that the strategy in many areas of Afghanistan was deeply flawed and ultimately futile. No place stood as a symbol of that futility more than the Korangal Valley.

The valley was a place of despair and terror. More than a few U.S. soldiers stationed there had turned to drugs, downing prescription painkillers like oxycodone, cocaine and in some cases heroin, according to a non-commissioned officer who served and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“A lot of guys coming out of the Korangal were failing the piss tests,” the officer said, referring to urine tests for drugs that are routinely given to soldiers in the field.

 

In a powerful story in the New York Times Thursday, Alissa J. Rubin reported the pullout on the ground in Korangal. She interviewed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of forces in Afghanistan, who told her the pullout was part of a strategy to refocus efforts in what was dangerously close to becoming a failed military campaign when he took it over last summer.

Fighting in isolated mountain villages was a waste of time, blood and money and it was better to focus the efforts in towns and cities like the offensive getting underway in Kandahar.

“There’s never a perfect answer,” McChrystal told Rubin when he visited the outpost just before the pullout. “I care deeply about everybody who has been hurt here, but I can’t do anything about it. I can do something about people who might be hurt in the future.”

Nye would agree with the assessment and the decision to pull out even if he is wary of the timber industry that thrives in the valley and how it might serve to fund the Taliban. In the end of the day, he knows the people in that remote hollow do not support the U.S. or any of the ideals or development projects it has come to offer them.

“We’re never going to change the people there, not down in there. I guess I got a little bit bitter,” he said.

It’s easy to see why when you hear Nye’s story about one bad night of his tour in Afghanistan.

Just after I met him in August 2006, the fighting heated up even more dramatically. On Oct. 6, 2006, Nye was caught in an attack on a patrol base near the Pech River. They were surrounded by an enemy that had come to be known simply as “ACM.”

“ACM” is one of those absurd military acronyms you hear everywhere in Kunar province. It stands for “Anti Coalition Militia.” They used the acronym because none knew whom they were fighting. It was never clear whether the incoming was fire from Taliban or Al Qaeda or the rag tag militia loyal to warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyar or just local fighters who have never throughout the ages taken kindly to invading empires. This wasn’t a front line in a war as much as it was a valley caught in a feud.

Nye said the Afghan national army soldiers who were under his command literally refused to fight in the battle. He was left protecting one side of the patrol base with only his interpreter left to feed him ammunition. He tore through 1,100 rounds from a heavy caliber machine gun mounted on top of a Humvee before the gun jammed. Then he fired with his M-4 automatic rifle into the darkness of the night with the interpreter running back to the base to get ammunition for him. The rest of the soldiers he said hid behind concrete barriers and sandbags and refused his orders to fight.

The Afghan interpreter’s name is Waisudin, or “Wise,” as they called him, and Nye keeps in touch with him.

“He was the only one who fought. … From that night on, I looked at everything differently. I knew those people didn’t believe in what was going on. So you gotta ask, 'What are we doing there, you know?'”

Nye was awarded a Bronze Star that night, but he says the experience was more one of disillusion than heroism.

He lives in Pennsylvania now and works as a police officer at Fort Detrick, Md. But he is set to deploy over the summer back to Afghanistan for another tour. He said he can’t discuss the exact timing and location of his deployment.

But he will be there with the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment out of Gardner, which is located about 50 miles west of Boston.

“I don’t know about the cause, but I know I am going for my guys,” said Nye. “At the end of the day after all the politics and everything else, that’s all you got. It’s about looking out for your guys and living through it.”