The U.S. military is in the process of withdrawing its forces from the Pech Valley in Kunar province, near the Pakistani border. The withdrawal, which began Feb. 15, is a continuation of the approach taken last year under Gen. Stanley McChrystal to begin to remove forces from the area. The pullout has drawn attention because of Pech's reputation as one of the most violent parts of the country, claiming the majority of the nearly 150 American servicemen killed in Kunar province. It is adjacent to the Korengal Valley, the subject of the documentary "Restrepo" and area from which U.S. forces withdrew in April 2010, and Wanat in nearby Nuristan province, where a remote U.S. outpost was almost overrun in an assault by hundreds of Taliban fighters in 2008. Though U.S. forces have now completely moved out of those two areas, Afghan forces will continue to occupy key positions in the Pech Valley. (click here to enlarge image) Though the United States has denied that it is abandoning the valley, citing the Afghan security forces that remain behind, it has acknowledged that its forces there may be the primary cause of violence in the valley — i.e., that the presence of Americans among the conservative local population was actually aggravating the situation. And the Taliban will no doubt claim it as a victory, as they did in Korengal. Despite the surge of forces, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is still spread very thin across the country, and the troops are needed for more decisive efforts elsewhere, including other areas of the Afghan-Pakistani border and active security operations in Kandahar province. The rugged, mountainous Pech Valley area in Kunar province abuts Bajaur agency, the northern tip of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Its location makes it a major thoroughfare for both Afghan and transnational jihadists. But over the years as the war has evolved from hunting down al Qaeda and other transnational jihadists thought to have transited the area to a counterinsurgency waged against the Taliban, American priorities have shifted. The movement of individuals and materiel through Pech remains a concern, and the forces there have long been exposed in isolated positions. But they are now being repositioned as part of the counterinsurgency-focused strategy. In other words, while the reasons U.S. troops were positioned here in the first place continue to exist, the mission, priorities and concept of operations have shifted. U.S. soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley on Oct. 28, 2008
Taliban and the Police
The Afghan Interior Ministry and ISAF spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz have claimed that the Taliban insurgency is now focused on softer targets, including police and civilians. Blotz and others have suggested the Taliban have begun shifting tactics away from roadside bombings, firefights with foreign troops and some suicide bombings on security targets, saying this is a sign the Taliban are weakening and thus that the counterinsurgency-focused strategy is working. The Taliban, on the other hand, deny any such claims. They argue that not only have their tactics and targeting not changed, but the recent increase in their attacks is a result of the increased mobility of their forces due to favorable weather conditions, which is to be expected as the spring thaw approaches. Though each side naturally attempts to blame the other for civilian deaths, the Taliban play by a very different set of rules. The question is not just about the sophistication and type of Taliban attacks but about the impact they have on American and NATO efforts to prop up the fledgling Afghan government, of which the police are an important component. Improvised explosive device emplacement has not abated, various armed attacks against foreign and Afghan security troops are nowhere close to disappearing, and the potential for a more aggressive assassination campaign this year also could significantly impact efforts at development and the establishment of basic governance and civil order. (click here to enlarge image) The Taliban may or may not be targeting the police more in an attempt to damage their credibility, and by extension that of the Afghan government, but confidence in police capabilities appears to be eroding in the most violent part of the country. Results from a U.N. poll released in February surveying the opinions of Afghans across 34 districts show that while confidence in police capabilities remained the same across much of the country, the southern region shows a significant decline in confidence. Nationwide, 79 percent of Afghans reported a favorable opinion of the police, whereas in the south the police fare only slightly better than Taliban forces. In the south, the popularity of the Afghan police dropped from 67 percent to 48 percent between 2009 and 2010. Reports from the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research along with the U.N. opinion poll results reveal the sharp regional distinctions in the Afghan public's opinion on police security capabilities. This should not be unexpected, given that the southern region is currently the area where the Taliban are the strongest. Those reports show that no more than a third of the Afghan population views the police as capable of taking over security responsibility from NATO-led forces in terms of training, preparation and skill, though its ability to do so remains a central pillar of the American exit strategy. The Taliban do not need to defeat ISAF forces to win; indeed, they already perceive themselves to be winning, and eroding the public's confidence in Afghan government institutions is part of their strategy. Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict
Reporter Michael Hastings, whose article in Rolling Stone magazine in June 2010 led to the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has written another article primarily critical of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO's training mission and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan. The article alleges that information operations personnel had been directed to use "psy-ops" techniques on visiting dignitaries, including U.S. senators and representatives. We mention it here principally to distinguish between the importance of the McChrystal revelations, which went to the heart of the leadership of the war and civilian control of the military, and this more recent article. The accusations within the recent article appear to be overblown and have been criticized as uncorroborated as well as contradicted by an internal U.S. Department of Defense investigation conducted in 2010. Caldwell's fate and the political implications remain to be seen, but at this point this latest article does not appear likely to have any significant impact on the war effort or the counterinsurgency-focused strategy.