Running Away From Death Valley

I applaud General Stanley McChrystal’s decision this week to withdraw US Forces from the Korengal Valley in the notorious Kunar-Nuristan corridor of Afghanistan. Even with roughly 150,000 troops soon at his disposal, it’s a brave call to abandon what was touted as an operationally important area—especially when the Taliban will undoubtedly claim the move as a victory. The pullback is being billed as part of a larger ‘repositioning’ of US and NATO forces to more populated areas of Afghanistan. Still, repositioning or not, some places cannot be dominated.

I speak from experience when I say that the Kunar-Nuristan corridor falls into that category. Back in 2007, I had occasion to travel to the region on a military embed with a small TV news crew. The embed took us from FOB Kala Gush in western Nuristan across to FOB Naray in Kunar and finally onto FOB Keating in eastern Nuristan. I have never in my entire life been to a military location as vulnerable as Camp Keating. Based at a junction of the Kunar River in a deep valley overlooked by sharp mountain peaks, the place was an insurgent’s Valhalla.

Militants could nest in a tree line or behind a boulder for days; studying the soldiers’ routines, working out the best time to strike. The poor troops stationed at Camp Keating were patrolling with eyes on stalks. FOB Keating’s mission at the time was provincial reconstruction and security sector reform; difficult tasks in any insurgent rich environment, let alone one with unforgiving terrain, ancient ethnic rivalries, lumber-smuggling syndicates and rampant xenophobia. I was never so happy to leave a base – and never so angry. I couldn’t believe any commander in their right mind would send great, young warriors to operate in such a location, especially when you consider that Soviet forces were hammered in Kunar-Nuristan during their ill-fated occupation. It was sheer lunacy. McChrystal’s predecessors were clearly not history buffs.

Camp Keating was abandoned late last year following the infamous ‘Battle of Kamdesh’ in which a large force of insurgents assaulted the outpost, killing 8 soldiers and wounding more than 20. The Yanks didn’t have an easy time in the Korengal Valley either. Known as Death Valley, it has claimed the lives of 42 American soldiers and wounded hundreds of others since 2005.

Concentrating troops in areas where they have a hope of dominating the ground is definitely a sounder strategy. Still, I think it’s too little too late. It certainly puts neighbouring Pakistan’s challenges into perspective as well. For years the West has criticized Pakistan for not doing enough to go after extremists on its side of the Durand Line—the historic border with Afghanistan. Now that Pakistan has launched multiple operations against insurgent strongholds in its border regions, it has every right to slate the West for not pulling its weight in Afghanistan.

So the Pakistanis have a legitimate grievance and the US will be accused of running away from Kunar-Nuristan. But at least McChrystal has taken his forces out of an impossible situation. Critics be damned.

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and bestselling author of The Circuit. To read more posts by him, please visit www.bobshepherdauthor.com.