Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letter response

Question from a reporter after I returned:

"I've heard from some troops who served there, as well as think tankers and other folks, that the US presence there was an "irritant" to the local population, and that they only joined the insurgency to get the US troops out of there.

I'm wondering if you've seen the same kind of insularity and isolation elsewhere in Kunar. Did you ever get the sense that the locals don't want you there, and could live fine alone, without US or ANA presence?"

My response:

True, the ETT job is not an easy one, but was by far the most rewarding thing I've done, and I think many ETTs would agree with me.

I do not want to denigrate the observations made by the individuals you talked to with experience in the Korengal, but I'm going to try to give you a bit of additional context on the Korengal before I move on to your questions. I think it's a bit of a simplification to say that Korengalis joined the insurgency to get us out of there. On the one hand, it's true that the folks out in Korengal do not like outsiders typically and will fight whoever shows up in their domain. They do want to be left alone. However, we have to keep in mind that not all the fighters in the Korengal were Korengalis. We heard a lot of voices over the radio that were from Pakistan or speaking Arabic. I think the fact was, that in the Korengal we never had sufficient combat capability (either in number or in the capability of the troops that were there) in order to provide a level of security to keep those outsiders out. So while we might say they fought us so that they'd be left alone, we could equally say they were forced to fight us by outside influence, including people that killed the local leaders when they cooperated with us. I don't believe the Korengalis wanted those outside insurgents in their valley either. The fact of the matter is we simply did not do a good enough job out there to win anyone to our side.

We can also equally argue that the locals' position on our presence was irrelevant. Part of the idea in having forces in the Korengal was to fight the insurgents there, rather than in the more populated areas. Those valleys in Kunar do eventually feed in towards Kabul, and the position at one time was to fight in the hinterlands as a way of taking pressure off the cities, specifically Kabul. Now that we've ceded that territory, it reverts to becoming a lawless region where things happen that we don't like - a safe haven if you will. We went into Afghanistan in the first place so that the Taliban would not have a place to hide unmolested to plot, plan, and train. The fact is, now that we're gone, the Korengal will not be simply a peaceful valley full of folks living a peaceful pastoral existence doing their own thing with no impact on the outside world. It will, and probably already has, become an area our enemies will use to their advantage. If the Korengalis could or would keep out foreigners and live peacefully, then we'd have no issue. But that will not be the case.

As for other areas of Kunar, my experience is with the Pech Valley, which has several large valleys branching off from it, including the Korengal, the Wama, the Watapor, the ChapaDara, and another whose name eludes me where the famous battle of Wanat took place. Go far enough into any of those valleys and we have little influence and no control. The people in the region are certainly not homogeneous, but they do share a lot of characteristics. I think it's fair to say that most do not want to be ruled by what they perceive as a corrupt regime in Kabul, and are probably tired of the US presence. I also think it's fair to say that they don't want to be ruled by the Taliban. They do want economic opportunity. They do want their daughters to go to school. They do want to live in peace. While some share an extremist ideology (and probably more so in the Korengal than other places in Kunar) with the Taliban that they picked up during their time as refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet conflict, certainly not all or most feel that way. Many of those people understand why our forces are there and what we're doing.

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