Korangal Valley Memo: In bleak Afghan outpost, troops slog on

GIs await reinforcements as Pentagon retools its anti-insurgency efforts
By C. J. Chivers, New York Times,, May 14, 2009

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KORANGAL OUTPOST, Afghanistan - The helicopters landed in blackness before the moon rose. The infantry company rushed out and through waist-high vegetation and into forests on an Afghan ridge.

Over the next 40 hours, more than 100 soldiers from the First Battalion, 26th Infantry, swept Sautalu Sar, the mountain where members of the Navy Seals were surrounded in battle in 2005. They were looking for weapons caches and insurgents.

They labored uphill through snow until daybreak, when the company broke into smaller patrols above 9,200 feet. They descended the next night through gullies and shin-deep mud and staggered back to their outpost without having yet slept.

All the while, the insurgents watched. Why fight the Americans when the Americans were ready and strong?

Afghanistan is to be President Obama’s war, and the Pentagon is retooling its efforts here in ways it hopes will undermine a sprawling insurgency. But as soldiers on the ground await reinforcements, this American operation showed that an old axiom of guerrilla warfare still applied: Where conventional soldiers mass, insurgents usually disperse.

Even the means were familiar. In the Korangal Valley, the insurgents have spotters on ridges. When the Americans send out a patrol, or launch a helicopter assault, spotters relay word up and down the valley. Then they decide what, if anything, to do.

What is the way through? The United States once talked of winning here. Now it speaks, more carefully, of succeeding. How success will be defined remains any soldier’s guess.

Will it be enough to ensure Afghanistan is not a launching pad for attacks against the United States and its allies — in other words, to ensure it is not a national security threat?

Or will success be declared when Afghanistan aligns with the more ambitious vision projected by the Bush administration? In that plan, Afghanistan, one of the most traditional lands on earth, becomes a nation remade along at least faintly Western lines.

Constant skirmishes
For that to be achieved, a far-flung and multiethnic population would have to accept a national idea and create a functioning government with free and fair elections, women’s rights, honest police officers and courts, and a diverse economy not floated by drugs. Pakistan, which harbors insurgents, would have to stabilize its frontiers.

Instead, Pakistan is simmering, and conditions for Afghan self-sufficiency are not going to be met soon. And so where the war is at its most violent and the other side usually picks when to fight, soldiers focus on immediate things, like not getting killed, and trying to kill the insurgents with whom they constantly skirmish.

Each day there are patrols, and watches to stand, and weapons to clean, and the difficulties of staying healthy in a harsh place, where ravens and dogs fight over the smoldering trash pit and flies move between chow tables and the latrine. And there is the dwindling, as units lose members to injuries, illness or death.

But after a long combat tour, the soldiers have gleaned insights valuable outside their bloody little plot, including that Afghan insurgents are not supermen, as they are often portrayed. They are lightly equipped. Sometimes they appear malnourished. Intelligence intercepts indicate that while they can coordinate their actions, they compete and quarrel with one another like anyone else.

No matter the legends of yesteryear, their ranks are crowded with poor marksmen — a weakness that makes them less effective than they might be.

Even still, the American presence is thin enough, and the Afghan and Pakistani governments weak enough, that in large areas the insurgents are both shadowy and the dominant social and military force. In these places, an American operation can feel like a thrust into air. Heavily armed soldiers are left to trudge, as outsiders in Afghanistan always have, through punishing weather and terrain.

Near the sweep’s end, as the company descended a cliff, a large rock slipped free and began a bouncing descent. Soldiers above warned soldiers below. “Rock!” they shouted. “Rock!”

No use. The chunk of stone, perhaps weighing 70 pounds, spun through the air and slammed into Sgt. Christopher Thompson. It could have killed him, but it struck squarely on his flak jacket, which distributed the impact. Sergeant Thompson was stunned. He drifted in and out of consciousness.

Within 15 minutes he regained his feet. In a half hour he was fording the river with soldiers beside him ensuring that he did not slip and drown. Then he climbed the hill on the far side.

This unglamorous sort of toughness is a common sight. But insurgents display toughness, too, making Korangal Valley an example of what can happen when determined adversaries settle into a competition for a small space.

American soldiers here pass their tours in an incredibly narrow plot: a string of fields, a few hundred houses and the rocky trails that connect them.

If the valley will be won over by fighting, then more troops may tilt the balance. But the Army cannot support more troops here without a road to resupply them, and the insurgents have prevented a road from being built. So the two sides fight as if in another time, with groups of men maneuvering and firing at each other from the same areas each day, gradually thinning each other’s ranks.

The morning after the sweep, the soldiers gathered outside. A pair of boots, a helmet and a rifle had been arranged before an American flag. Dog tags hung from the rifle. They bore the name of Pfc. Richard Dewater, 21, who had been killed by a bomb hidden on a trail.

“Tricky,” the soldiers called him. He had just celebrated his first wedding anniversary, and hoped to start a family after returning to the United States this summer. Instead the soldiers filed past, in pairs and in threes, to grieve his early return. Many cried.

After the ceremony, the violence resumed. The soldiers detected a Taliban spotter on a ridge, which was pounded with mortars and then white phosphorus rounds from a 155-millimeter howitzer.

What did the insurgents do? When the smoldering subsided, they attacked from exactly the same spot, shelling the outpost with 30-millimeter grenades and putting the soldiers on notice that the last display of firepower had little effect. The Americans escalated. An A-10 aircraft made several gun runs, then dropped a 500-pound bomb.

The valley quieted. Had the insurgents been killed? Probably not, the soldiers said. Another day in the Korangal, with both sides making the point they made during the sweep: Do what you will. We are still here.

More American troops are due in Afghanistan later this year, with hopes of strengthening the government, filling seams across the south and east, where the Taliban is often unchallenged, and breaking exactly this kind of deadlock.

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