Stars and Stripes & The New York Times & The Washington – 2011-02-27 01:11:26
US Pulling Forces Out of Pech Valley
(February 25, 2011) — “What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-US or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” an American military official familiar with the decision told the Times. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.”
The US military is pulling back most of its forces from the remote Pech Valley in Afghanistanâ€™s Kunar province, ground it once insisted was central to the war effort, the New York Times reported late Thursday.
The withdrawal formally began Feb. 15, the Times wrote. The military projects that it will take about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to more populated areas.
In April 2010, the US closed its outposts in the adjoining Korengal Valley because it was too violent and didnâ€™t seem to fit in with the overall counterinsurgency mission.
Now the Pech Valley outposts are being shuttered for much the same reason — the population in the Pech is too small to spend time trying to win hearts and minds and the insurgent resistance is too strong to justify the modest military gains.
And it is an emotional issue for American troops, who fear their service and sacrifices could be squandered. At least 103 American soldiers have died in or near the valleyâ€™s maze of steep gullies and soaring peaks, according to a count by The Times, and many times more have been wounded, often severely.
Stars and Stripes reporter James Foley embedded with the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment in the Pech Valley in late 2010 while a freelance reporter for the GlobalPost.
In September, Lt. Col. Joe Ryan talked about the frustrations and doubtful utility of fighting in Pech.
“My theory, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s too outlandish, is that we provide all these insurgent groups with a common enemy, that helps them,” Ryan said in a video interview from FOB Blessing. “Our presence almost helps them combine their forces, combine their efforts against us,” he said…..
Ultimately, the decision to withdraw reflected a stark — and controversial — internal assessment by the military that it would have been better served by not having entered the high valley in the first place.
“What we figured out is that people in the Pech really arenâ€™t anti-US or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” an American military official familiar with the decision told the Times. “Our presence is whatâ€™s destabilizing this area.”….
Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, who is in Washington for high-level meetings, expressed concern about what would happen if US troops left long-established bases in the Pech Valley.
“It will be difficult for Afghans to hold these areas on their own,” Wardak told The Washington Post. â€œThe terrain there is very tough. “I personally fought against the Soviets in that area.”
Afghans see the Pech Valley and surrounding Kunar province as key terrain because the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s first gained significant momentum in those areas. “We have to be very careful in how we manage this area,” Wardak said.
American forces first came to the valley in force in 2003, The Times wrote, following the trail of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-i-Islami group, who, like other prominent insurgent leaders, has been said at different times to hide in Kunar. They did not find him, though Hezb-i-Islami is active in the valley.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and Stars and Stripes reporter James Foley contributed to this report.