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Will US exit strategy work in Afghanistan? Brutal valley emerges as test.

US forces have had to return to a key outpost they left to Afghan forces in March. Now, the US commander there is trying to forge a new partnership to bring the Afghans up to speed.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / August 31, 2011

A US Army vehicle fires on Taliban positions on a mountainside, outside a base in the Pech River Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar province on Oct. 28, 2009. US forces turned over Camp Blessing, one of its bases in the region, to Afghan forces in March only to return four months later.

David Guttenfelder/AP/File

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Kunar, Afghanistan

Nestled in a lush but mean valley on the banks of the Pech River, Camp Blessing was no longer the sort of place, US commanders decided in February, that warranted the bloodshed of American soldiers.

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Instead, the US war effort would benefit from focusing its limited resources on population centers, they concluded, and away from the Pech’s brutal terrain and rather xenophobic citizenry, ready and more than willing to skillfully take up arms against outsiders.

Better, they concluded, to leave this sparsely settled region – where Afghan fighters mustered to make the first successful stand against Soviet occupation – to the Afghan Army.

So soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division towed away the modern toilet trailers and stripped Camp Blessing of its amenities – air-conditioning units, flat-screen monitors, and the covered plywood porch where senior US troops convened to smoke cigars and discuss the news of the day.

In March, they rechristened the base “Nangalam” and turned it over to Afghan forces.

Today, however, US soldiers are back. The conditions at the once built-up outpost are now spartan. Troops bathe with baby wipes and bottled water and sleep on the floors of buildings that, they discovered upon their return in late July, were littered with human feces.

Insurgents had advanced so steadily since March that the Afghan Army could lose the base itself, say a new crop of US commanders.

They see the return as an opportunity to forge a new model for cooperation and mentoring with the Afghan security forces. But while the Pech is admittedly one of Afghanistan’s toughest assignments, the Afghan Army’s failed four-month attempt take the reins of security illustrates its shortfalls – and how far there is to go, US officers say, if NATO is to turn all security responsibilities over to Afghan forces by 2014.

The troops who have come back to this jagged spine of mountain peaks are under no illusions about the difficulty of the task that awaits them. Their code name for this operation: “Hotel California.”

“It’s like the lyrics,” says 2nd battalion intelligence officer Maj. Marcus Wright of the Eagles song: “ ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’ ”

Welcome back

When US forces moved back into Camp Blessing in late July, they were greeted with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, one of which hit the underbelly of a US Chinook carrying supplies for the base. That marked the first shoot-down of a Chinook this year. The pilot was able to land relatively gently without any serious injuries, though passengers were forced to sprint when thousands of rounds of ammunition caught fire and ignited, causing shrapnel injuries and destroying the helicopter.

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