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Chapter 1. Sisyphus: Pacifying the Capillary Valleys
According to Greek mythology, the gods punished prideful King Sisyphus by forcing him to endlessly push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back each time. When the American Army encountered the towering mountains of northeast Afghanistan, they came to appreciate the Sisyphean task. When American soldiers trekked up the mountains, the insurgents fled, returning after the Americans left. Like ocean waves, the Americans rolled in, and out, and in again.
The Korengal Valley became the symbol of that frustration, if not the metaphor for the war. Although abandoned in mid-2010, the American outpost in the Korengal was not a memorial to a clueless military. Far from it – and far more sobering – the Korengal was key to a diligent, thoughtful strategy. The notion that “true counterinsurgency” began with President Obama’s surge strategy in 2010 was incorrect. Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan began four years earlier, with decidedly mixed results.
From the capital of Kabul, a wide valley stretches 30 miles eastward to the Khyber Pass, the main crossing point into Pakistan. North of the Khyber, the high mountain passes are snowbound during winter. The four provinces northeast of Kabul are of little commercial value, inhabited by insular tribes resentful of outsiders. Beginning in 2002, Special Forces teams and Army and Marine battalions pursued the terrorist bands hiding in Nuristan, Nangarhar, Konar and Laghman, or N2KL.
Konar consists of bundles of forested mountains sliced by capillary valleys and riverbeds. In the center of the province, the Konar River runs from the snow-capped crags of the Hindu Kush to the north through a wide farming valley and onto the plain extending to the Khyber Pass to the south. (Pic 1)The Durand Line, a ridge that marked the Pakistan border, ran along the east side of the Konar; on the west side of the river plain lay the Pech River and a thick tangle of mountains and tiny valleys, including the Korengal. (Map 2.)
In 2005, the Safi tribe in the flat, flourishing farmlands along the major rivers was friendly and curious about the Americans.
“With hundreds of isolated villages,” LtCol Chip Bierman, the battalion commander at that time, said, “there was no way my sixteen platoons could provide real security. The Taliban crossed from Pakistan and popped up around the Korengal whenever they pleased. It wasn’t heavy fighting. The average Marine saw only three or four enemy in his entire tour.”
The more impoverished tribes in the mountains exhibited mixed sentiments. Some were friendly and others standoffish. Within minutes, a sharp interpreter could gauge the loyalties of a village consisting of twenty to a hundred stone and wood square houses.
Konar Province leapt into the American consciousness in April of 2005 when a four-man SEAL commando team was ambushed high on a mountain overlooking the Korengal Valley by a small enemy band, including “six to twelve well-trained foreign fighters with experience.”[i] Other Special Operations troops leaped into a rescue helicopter that tried to land without covering fire and was shot down. Nineteen of America’s best-trained troops were killed, the highest loss in a single battle in the war.
The victorious Taliban posted a vivid video of the fight and of American bodies on YouTube, and the enemy commander, Ahmed Shah, gave an interview to CBS Television. The ambush and killing of 19 Special Operations Forces provided a powerful morale lift to the Taliban. Suddenly the Americans were not ten feet tall; they could be beaten.
Marine battalion 1-3 was assigned to Konar Province, and spent a year launching raids from three bases spread across 70 miles. Through sources and radio intercepts, the Marines had fair knowledge of when groups of fighters had passed through a valley. Because the intelligence was normally vague and late, the Marines ran hundreds of patrols in fruitless pursuit. The book, “Victory Point”, is a first-hand account of the confused tactics that resulted in the loss of the 19 American commandos. A platoon leader called it “a saga of combat governed by stream of consciousness.”[ii]
After ambushing the SEALs, Shah slipped across the border into Pakistan, where the tribes and Taliban gangs greeted him as a hero. But months slipped into years, and he couldn’t return to the Korengal. The Americans had posted a reward of $70,000 – one hundred times larger than a year’s wages - and Shah knew someone would betray him. Out of cash and fame by 2008, he tried to kidnap a wealthy Pakistani and was killed by the local police.
In April of 2006, the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division replaced the Marines. The commander, Col John ‘Mick” Nicholson, decided against the raid approach. Instead, he ordered his battalion commanders to spread out and settle down, aiming to bring continuous security across a wide swath of farmlands and nearby capillary valleys. The brigade gradually established 42 Combat Outposts, or COPs manned by a platoon (40 soldiers) or a company (130 soldiers at most).
LtCol Chris Cavoli, commanding Battalion 1-32, was given responsibility for a wide swath, including Asadabad, Konar’s capital city, and the surrounding districts. “A-bad” sat a the juncture of the Y where the Pech River to the west flowed into the large Konar River that ran roughly north to south. The Marines had one outpost at A-Bad and another at Camp Blessing, 30 kilometers northwest up the Pech. The dirt track leading to Blessing was called IED Alley because it was simple work to dig in an explosive, mark it with a few rocks to warn the locals and wait for a humvee to explode.
The Mission and the People
From A-Bad, the Konar River flowed south 60 kilometers to Jalalabad, where Cavoli had his headquarters. It took between nine and 16 hours to drive from Jalalabad through A-Bad and up to Blessing. The standard counterinsurgency ration of security forces to population is 50-to-one; in the brigade’s area of operations, it was 2,000-to-one.
At the beginning of their tour, Nicholson and Cavoli decided to institute counterinsurgency based on three principles: “Clear, hold and build”. First, “clear” by separating the people from the insurgents by stationing American soldiers near or among the people. Second, “hold” by providing money and materials to the people in order to buy their loyalty. Third, “build” by insuring that local officials acted honestly and were connected to the central government.
The three tasks together required nation-building, because the American soldiers were doing the fighting, organizing the shuras, setting up the projects and services, and overseeing the start-up activities of the newly-appointed district governor. In Vietnam in the ‘60s, the central government had well-established connecting files to the province and district level. In Iraq after 2003, although the US military had to prop up district and provincial appointees for several years, thousands of educated and qualified Iraqis competed for the posts. Such pre-existing conditions for central governance were absent in Afghanistan. Every American battalion commander soon found himself enmeshed in political and economic issues.
Underlying the details was an unquestioned assumption that the Pashtun people wanted the protection, projects and ties to the Kabul government that the Americans stitched together. Cavoli later ruefully wrote, “Our generals talked about everything… But not one word about what the people wanted. Their support was assumed.”[iii]
Based on months of climbing the mountains and patrolling the valley floors, Marine Colonel Chip Bierman had concluded that the Korengal was the lair for the resistance inside Konar. The Korengalis were a tribe of five thousand who spoke their own language. In the ‘20s, the Safi tribe in the river farmlands had permitted the Korengalis to settle in the 20-kilometer narrow, rock-strewn valley that looked like a vertical gash separating two mountains. The insular Korengalis scraped out thin terraces for wheat, rice and corn, drove their skinny cattle into the high pastures during the summer and systematically harvested the majestic Himalayan cedars, strong, light, aromatic and much in demand in nearby Pakistan. Every government to take power in Kabul opposed the destruction of Afghanistan’s beauty, but no government forces dared to enter the Korengal’s long box canyon. The only English word Korengalis knew was “chainsaw”.
In the ‘80s, when the mujahideen infiltrated from Pakistan to harass the Soviet garrison at A-Bad, they operated from the inaccessible Korengal. The Korengalis accepted the outside fighters, the money they brought from the Gulf Sates and their fundamentalist mullahs. After they were driven back into Pakistan in 2001, the Taliban gradually reactivated those nascent networks. The key enabler was Haji Matin, a cedar exporter and fiery advocate of fundamentalism whose family house in the Korengal was bombed and several relatives killed in 2003. Rumors circulated that a rival had unjustly fingered Matin. Whatever the truth, after the bombing Matin crossed into Pakistan and organized the growing Taliban rebellion inside the Korengal.
Actually, it is a distortion to use the word Taliban as synonymous with the insurgency. There are splinter groups of rebels, like the treacherous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his few thousand loyalists called the HIG and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who are as dangerous in the northern provinces as is Mullah Omar and his Taliban shura in the south. In some villages, the elders resent the influence of fundamentalist mullahs from poorer families who have gained status through the power of the gun; in other villages, blood feuds have taken hold due to coalition bombings. Many of the fighters are poor youths recruited part-time for ten dollars a day
Taliban with a small “t” is a the accurate word for describing fighters with diverse commands and motivations. Some analysts called them “anti-coalition militias”, indicating that anti-infidel or anti-foreigner sentiment is as the core of the insurgency. At base, though, the true Taliban advocates comprise the center of the rebellion.
In May of 2006, Battalion 1-32 moved into the Korengal Out-Post. An abandoned sawmill with heavy cedar beams scattered about, the KOP was the rawest of posts - a steep, stripped hill on the western slope of the valley, with adequate fields of fire to beat off direct assaults, but open to sniping from the ridges on the east side. For months the soldiers of Attack Company slept in the dirt, wedged between cordons of timber, covered with dust and bitten by sand fleas, with no water for showers, no fresh food and uniforms cut into rags by the flinty rocks.
“We were in the defense,” Specialist Paul Roach said, “waiting to be hit. A two-star general visited us once, and his bird was hit and left without him. That was pretty funny.”
There was no level ground in the Korengal and every soldier was sweating profusely ten minutes into a patrol, gasping for breath on the 7,000-foot slopes. The watchers were everywhere.
“If we didn’t get hit for three days,” Sgt. Brower, a squad leader, said, “then we knew something big was coming.”
No patrol left the wire without being spotted by the women, children and shepherds scattered on every trail.
“We never saw the enemy with weapons,” Corporal Raps, a rifleman, said. “Unarmed males would walk by our patrols, move up to their arms caches, and shoot at us when we returned.”
Over commercial handheld radios, including many with the brand name of ICOM, the insurgents chatted in Korengali and Pashto, using simple codes that were quickly broken.
“I have nine potatoes, over.”
“OK, I’ll wait for your potatoes and give them some sugar, but I only have a few lumps left.”
Colonel Cavoli wasn’t sticking a company in the middle of nowhere just to get into gunfights. He had a thought-out plan. His companies were stretched 60 kilometers along the broad Konar River from Jalalabad north to A-Bad, and then another 30 kilometers northwest along the narrow Pech River from A-Bad to Blessing. At the end of the fork up the Pech, Blessing protected the district town of Nangalam that sat at the confluence of two watersheds running down from the provinces farther to the north. Blessing was a key point to collect intelligence from traders about what was going on deep inside the Hindu Kush.
Still, a string of outposts – A-Bad, Korengal, Blessing - was playing defense. Cavoli decided to turn the mission into offense. What did he need? A hardtop road that made it difficult to dig in IEDs and quadrupled his vehicular speed around the province. What did the people need? A hardtop road so they could reach markets, schools and mosques regardless of snow or rain. Their interests overlapped.
“The road was our plan for the year (2007),” Cavoli wrote. “The people work with us on it, and we fight the enemy off in order to bring them the progress. How can they not like us?”
As the hardtop roads progressed, more men were employed in its construction, and a string of wooden and tin one-room stores selling produce and goods sprang up, mile after mile. Cavoli placed a company at each end of the Pech, and added a third along the Pech road. Although all the paving would not be completed for a year, he now had an interconnected security bubble covering 100,000 people. The Americans were on the inside, and the Taliban had to attack from the hills to the outside, where overwhelming firepower could be applied.
Lt. Mike Harrison and his platoon found working with the Safi people along the Pech to be a pleasure. They were enthusiastic about the roads. “Building roads,” Harrison said, “is instinctive in West Pointer. We’re engineers. We know transportation infrastructure is critical for commerce and for war. It’s a win-win for security and growth.”
In fact, Army battalions across Afghanistan applied 60% of their discretionary emergency relief funds to the road-building. The Pech tribes also appreciated the hydroelectric generators, schools and other projects.
But everyone feared the outside suicide bomber. For the Americans, one disaster would drive a space between them and all Afghans. How can you sip tea with anyone if you never know when you will be blown apart? For the Afghans, a secret bomber meant that some of their children and women would be killed in the unexpected blast. Along the Pech, the people provided the early warning screen, alerting Harrison when strangers wandered past.
“The difference between the Safis along the rivers and the tribes in the hills,” Harrison said, “was surreal. Two different worlds. I really liked duty on the Pech. But a few kilometers away, the Kornegalis would kill every American.”
The Korengali elders claimed that infidel fighters were the problem. But when Attack Company offered them food and blankets, the materials were rejected.
[i] Ed Darack, Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers, Berkley, 2009, page 161; see also page 172, estimating a band at ten enemies. Others made the same point based on youtube, indicating the fog of war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6Q8uOfhjmg&has_verified=1
[ii] ibid, p. 146
[iii] Col. Chris Cavoli, manuscript entitled “Guns and Tea”, June 20, 2010, p. 18