Afghanistan’s harsh and isolated Korengal Valley two years ago this month served as the setting for an unlikely U.S. military maneuver — a retreat.
The Army evacuated a network of hilltop platoon outposts, left them to the Taliban and started a war strategy devised by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan in 2010.
Five years of constant fighting had proved unsuccessful in taming a lawless valley of thieves, warlords, smugglers and the Taliban.
“The belief was our presence there was radicalizing and driving the insurgents,” said Bill Roggio, who directs the Long War Journal for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The military could not give up on what is called Regional Command East. It had long deemed the Kunar province and its swath of rugged hills and valleys, such as the Korengal, a critical combat zone to stop an ensconced enemy in Pakistan from crossing through to attack Kabul, the capital.
Today, the failed Korengal experiment is a factor in a new way of conducting missions in the east, which includes Kunar and 13 other provinces, and a 450-mile-long border with terrorist-infested Pakistan. The military calls it a “refocus” on finding and hitting the enemy, with less reliance on static valley outposts.
Commanders hope the April 2010 retreat eventually will help bring victory, or at least a reduced enemy presence that can be managed by the Afghan National Army and local police.
‘Mowing the grass’
The east stands as the war’s most daunting challenge, and the U.S. command knows it is on the clock. President Obama has set the end of 2014 for the removal of virtually all ground combat forces.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, a key outside adviser to U.S. generals, told The Washington Times that the approach involves “not trying to be all things to everyone in the east as we had done in the past. That is what drove this refocus, because there were clearly higher priorities to be able to deal with what the enemy was truly doing.”
To Mr. Roggio, the command still has lots of work to do.
“The Taliban has gained control over areas,” he told The Times. “A general called it ‘mowing the grass.’ That’s basically what we’ve been doing, trying to conduct these special operations raids and battalion- and brigade-size operations to [clip] the grass every once in a while. The Taliban still controls numerous districts.”
The “mowing the grass” quote came from an unidentified general in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article.
Korengal, the battlefield made famous in the National Geographic Entertainment movie “Restrepo,” came to symbolize a failing war in 2009 and a need to surge more U.S. troops to turn the tide of battle, as was done in Iraq in 2007.
The east had become an outpost war zone. The Army built platoon-sized, bunkered camps at the tops of hills from which to launch counterinsurgency operations.
But as “Restrepo” documented in following one platoon, soldiers spent lots of time fortifying their outpost and defending it against incoming fire. On foot patrols, they did not know the enemy’s locations and got ambushed. The local elders had little interest in helping them weed out the Taliban. Promises of economic help were not kept.
“To set up these isolated platoon outposts that really did not have that much relevance to what the enemy was doing, I think, was a mistake,” said Gen. Keane. “I don’t think it was necessarily a mistake to fight there. How we took the fight to the enemy there — I think we learned some lessons from it and we would probably not redo it that way.”
Said Mr. Roggio: “The Taliban went in and made a propaganda coup — riding the StairMaster we left behind, stuff like that.”
The lesson? “There’s no quick fixes,” he said. “Ultimately, that would be the lesson. You needed to go into those areas with overwhelming military force, and you also needed the civil side. You needed Afghan governance.”
Nearly nine years into the war, the military had to acknowledge a big mistake.
“So what the commanders did, they took a very hard look at the east, with the help of the Kagans, who analyzed the terrain and the enemy to a level of detail that maybe had not been done in the past,” Gen. Keane said.
The Kagans are Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, a husband-and-wife analytical team who played a major role in developing and selling the Iraq surge.
In 2010, the U.S. command invited them to Afghanistan as an outside “red team” to tell the generals how operations could be improved.
Mr. Kagan, a military historian who taught at West Point, is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mrs. Kagan, who also taught at West Point, is president of the Institute for the Study of War.
The Kagans spent months in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. They traveled throughout the battle space to study the enemy and the tactics to kill them.
As the Kagans gave their advice, U.S. troops adapted.
“They refocused on the populated areas, which has meant coming out of some of the valleys,” Mrs. Kagan told The Times. “Troops rearranged so that they were massed in the key terrain in population areas in order to interact with the population, protect that population and really help abrogate the enemy by seeing to it they could not engage in the same intimidation campaigns that they were engaged in populated areas.”
Three main intelligence/strike targets emerged: “mobility corridors” through which the Taliban and allied Haqqani Network fighters moved; “support zones,” or safe havens, where the enemy planned and rested; and the areas around possible enemy targets.
“The Kagans did a better job in analyzing which were the ones the enemy was using and which ones were more important,” Gen. Keane said.
The still untamed east
And what about the valleys such as Korengal?
“They are using strike forces and basically planned operations on occasion to go back into the valleys and remove pockets of the enemies when they grow sufficient to warrant military attention,” Mrs. Kagan said. “That is really what has changed in operating in the northern Kabul area.”
Mrs. Kagan said the operations of Army Col. Andrew Poppas, who led Task Force Bastogne last year, stand as a good example. He used “creative ways to mass forces” to go after the Taliban, she said.
Nine months into his mission, Col. Poppas talked to the Pentagon press corps from a base in Jalalabad. He gave three examples of combined strikes on identified safe havens that took territory away from the Taliban.
In Operation Bulldog Bite in Kunar’s Pech River Valley, “we successfully reduced the amount of insurgent attacks on the local populace and proved wrong the entire mystique that there were safe havens [for] the enemy,” he said. “We worked through each of the separate valleys, identifying, targeting the enemy network, predominately Taliban.”
Gen. Keane said that, while the Korengal Valley outpost warfare did not work, what has succeeded is keeping pressure on the enemy to prevent it from planning and staging large, continuous attacks on the capital via eastern mobility corridors.
“I think we’ve been largely successful in that we conducted a defense in-depth to protect Kabul, the capital city,” he said. “And by and large, Kabul has not been lit up in terms of catastrophic systematic attacks, which challenge the legitimacy of the regime, which was happening in Baghdad in 2005 and 2006.”
The spring and summer “fighting seasons” are beginning in Afghanistan. Gen. Keane said the U.S., while making significant village-by-village gains in the south and the southwest, has still not tamed the east.
“The enemy has not been able to do what it has been trying to do,” he said. “But, nonetheless, we have not been able to defeat the enemy in the east.”