American troops have withdrawn from a notorious valley in eastern Afghanistan that has seen some of the worst fighting of the war, with commanders citing a shift in strategy.
A low-key press release yesterday announced the “realignment” of US forces out of the Korengal Valley, where 42 American soldiers have been killed and hundreds wounded since 2005. One base established at the northern end of the six-mile-long valley will be retained to block a Taleban infiltration route.
“Repositioning forces from the Korengal Valley to more populated areas will allow us to have greater flexibility,” said Colonel Randy George, the commander of US forces in Kunar province. “The area was once very operationally important but, appropriate to the new strategy, we are focusing our efforts on population centres. We’re still able to conduct operations there, even without a base, like we do in other remote valleys.”
However, while American commanders argue that the valley — close to the Pakistan border — is a remote backwater of limited strategic value, its symbolic value is considerable and its abandonment will be claimed as a victory by the Taleban. The intense fighting in the area has been portrayed in a film, Restrepo, named as best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in February, and has inspired at least one book.
Since late last year, American forces have abandoned seven bases along the eastern border — angering Pakistan, which claims that the American withdrawals have compromised their efforts to put pressure on militants. Pakistan maintains 900 border forts along the historic and porous Durand Line between itself and Afghanistan, while US and Afghan forces are reducing the 80 or 90 forts on their side.
The new American approach echoes a shift in strategy pursued by Soviet forces in the area who, after 1986, ceded remote areas to the Mujahidin and focused their efforts on the cities, main arteries and areas of dense population.
The Korengal Valley sits on an infiltration route for militants from Pakistan’s remote tribal agency of Bajaur, which Pakistani forces have recently retaken. The valley has just 4,500 inhabitants but has proved troublesome for American commanders since they entered the area in 2005. It contains a fiercely xenophobic tribe of mountain people who speak their own language — Korengali — and have resisted all outside influence. They are converts to Wahhabism, the most austere school of Islam, and the one practised by Osama bin Laden.
The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, pondered last year whether the presence of US forces in the Korengal Valley was generating the fighting. “The question in the Korengal is: how many of those fighters, if left alone, would ever come out of there to fight?” he said. “I can’t answer that. But I do sense that you create a lot of opposition through operations.”
In April 2006 American forces established a base in the valley from which they sought to bring development to the area and to connect it to the outside world. They were met with relentless local opposition, while militants from Pakistan crossed the border in large numbers to attack American troops in wooded mountain terrain that favoured the attackers. Much of the local economy was founded on timber smuggling, an activity that the Afghan Government attempted to ban.
With any local support for US troops extinguished, American commanders became convinced that the human and logistical cost of maintaining the high-altitude positions was nonsensical.
In a further development, Pakistan acknowledged yesterday that at least 45 civilians were killed in an airstrike in the Khyber tribal region at the weekend.
Hundreds of tribesmen demonstrated against the attack by Pakistani jet fighters on Sera Vella village, with tribal elders insisting that there had been no militants in the area. Many of those killed belonged to the Kookikhel tribe, which has a history of cooperating with the military in the antiTaleban campaign. Most families in the village have sons in the security forces and many retired army and paramilitary soldiers were among the dead.
Click to view image: 'Korengal Valley'
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