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U.S. Forces Leave Afghan ‘Valley of Death’


U.S. Forces Leave Afghan ‘Valley of Death’

KORENGAL OUTPOST, Afghanistan—For five years, U.S. troops fought their way up and down the cedar-studded slopes of the Korengal Valley. The ferocity of the fighting inspired a video-game scenario, thrust the remote valley into the media glare, and famously forced a U.S. soldier to fight in his underwear. In all, 42 U.S. troops have been killed here.

On Wednesday, the fight for Korengal officially ended when the final U.S. soldiers were airlifted from a ridge above this collection of stone buildings, sandbagged bunkers and jury-rigged plumbing built on the grounds of a former lumber mill. The Americans pulled out because they determined that instead of bringing a measure of stability to Korengal, they had largely proven “an irritant to the people,” said the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

“We’re not living in their homes, but we’re living in their valley,” Gen. McChrystal said on a visit to Korengal last week as the withdrawal was getting under way. “There was probably much more fighting here than there would have been” if U.S. troops had never come.

U.S. soldiers responded to Taliban fire outside their bunker in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, May 11, 2009. This photo, made available by World Press Photo in Amsterdam, won second prize in the People in the News Singles category of the 2010 World Press Photo contest by American photographer David Guttenfelder for the Associated Press.

Asked about moving out of the valley after losing so many men here, Gen. McChrystal said: “I care deeply about everyone who’s been hurt here. But I can’t do anything about that. I can do something about people hurt in the future.”

American officials say the exit from Korengal represents neither a victory nor a loss—just changing priorities. The focus since President Barack Obama’s Afghan strategy review has switched to seizing key population centers back from the Taliban and restoring the Afghan government’s battered authority and credibility. That thinking underpinned the coalition offensive in the southern town of Marjah in February and the plans now being drawn up for a massive surge of forces into Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland.

The flipside of the counterinsurgency strategy is the withdrawal of troops from sparsely populated areas where an American presence is deemed unnecessary to defeat the Taliban and potentially harmful in creating a violent environment. Many of the soldiers are in the remote valleys of eastern Afghanistan, forested slivers where outsiders—even those from elsewhere in Afghanistan—have never been welcome and the government’s writ never really existed.

“If you don’t understand the dynamics, you have no chance of getting it right,” Gen. McChrystal said.

U.S. forces have already pulled out of much of Nuristan province to the north, where last year eight American soldiers were killed when two of their bases were stormed by insurgents. More withdrawals are planned. Reporters were allowed to visit soldiers in Korengal on the condition they didn’t report on the withdrawal until the military said the valley was clear.

Regional Violence

“We’ve got to come out of these valleys,” said Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. “This is going to free up a full company”—roughly 120 men—”and that’s going to give us a lot more flexibility to focus on places where there are more people.”

Korengal, with its 4,500 people who speak their own dialect of Pashto and practice a particularly ascetic form of Islam, definitely didn’t fit into the new counterinsurgency plan. Even when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they never established their authority over the valley.

Its topography—a six-mile long, two-mile wide gorge lined by steep, forested slopes with rocky outcroppings—and a toxic mix of angry locals, Taliban, and foreign insurgents coming over the border from Pakistan prompted Time magazine to call it the “Valley of Death.” Vanity Fair dedicated nearly 14,000 words spread over two stories to Korengal, noting in a January 2008 story that nearly a fifth of all combat in Afghanistan at the time took place in the valley.

The valley also produced one of the most iconic images of the war: a May 2009 Associated Press photograph of a U.S. soldier fighting off an attack on his base clad in flip flops, a red T-shirt and pink boxer shorts emblazoned with little “I love NY” logos.

One of the observation posts in the valley, Firebase Phoenix, later renamed Firebase Vimoto, was even featured in a scenario in the best-selling video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”

“I’ve never had to tell war stories because everyone’s heard of this place,” said Pfc. Chris Huggins, 22 years old, of Baker Company, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. The Gloucester, Virginia-native spent his last few weeks in the valley at Vimoto, a tiny collection of stone buildings crowned by a wooden, sandbagged observation post. The base comes under fire almost daily.

Still, “I was always telling people back home it wasn’t as bad as they thought here,” Pfc. Huggins said.

It wasn’t good, either. One of the Americans’ first forays into the valley was an effort by U.S. Navy Seals to capture a local Taliban leader in July 2005. The initial four-man team that dropped into the valley was quickly attacked, and then a Chinook helicopter packed with men sent to save them was shot down by Taliban forces. In total, 19 U.S. service members were killed.

Nearly a year later, in April 2006, U.S. forces moved back in to stay. They set up the Korengal Outpost in the valley’s north end on the site of the defunct saw mill, whose owner, Haji Matin, is now one of the valley’s main insurgent leaders. Over the next two years, U.S. forces established two more large observation posts and two small fire bases in Korengal.

But they never made it to the southern, Taliban-infested end of the valley, and fighting was a daily occurrence. By last year, officers as high ranking as Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were questioning why the U.S. was tying down a whole company here.

The valley never became one of those places in Afghanistan where the coalition could measure progress in schools and clinics and irrigation projects built. Whatever they built, the Taliban destroyed. There is no local Afghan government here to work with.

“Everybody hates them in the valley,” Haji Nizamuddin, a tribal elder in Korengal, said of the Americans. U.S. forces “shoot at people, they raid our houses and kill our women and children.” Mr. Nizamuddin stressed that he wasn’t pro-Taliban. He, like many people in the valley, simply wanted to be left alone, he said.

“If the foreigners leave the Taliban will stop harassing my people,” he said during a telephone interview from the provincial capital, Asad Abad. “We have our tribes and our tribes can protect us against the insurgents when the Americans leave.”

The U.S. withdrawal involved 84 runs by helicopters down the twisting, narrow gorges that lead into the valley and back out. It was kept secret to avoid tipping off the Taliban; commanders feared that if the insurgents found out the timing of the withdrawal, they would try to mass fighters and launch one last coordinated attack on the exposed and retreating soldiers.

Instead, the Taliban appeared to have missed its chance to do a final “complex” operation, Baker Company’s commander, Capt. Mark Moretti, told Gen. McChrystal during a briefing last week at the Korengal Outpost. Communications intercepts by U.S. intelligence showed the Taliban’s chief figure in the valley, Abdul Rahim, was recently across the border in Pakistan with $18,000 and trying to raise a force of 200 fighters even as the Americans pulled out.

No officer here, including Gen. McChrystal, believes Korengal will become a haven from which Taliban fighters can launch attacks beyond the valley. There remains a coalition base at the valley’s northern end to keep fighters from coming into the more populous Pech River Valley, which runs perpendicular to Korengal. And teams of soldiers can always be airdropped back into Korengal on specific missions, officers said.

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