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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

It was a pattern of hostility repeatedly encountered by US forces. “We really had to reoccupy the base,” says Maj. Glenn Kozelka, executive officer for the 2nd battalion, 3rd brigade combat team of the 25th Infantry Division.

Security had deteriorated rapidly after US forces departed. Within weeks, the Afghan battalion commander at Nangalam could not safely get to meetings in a Asadabad, Kunar’s bustling capital 25 miles east. The Taliban overran and occupied the capital of a nearby district center.

At the same time, insurgents routinely attacked Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol routes. By May, the Afghan commander stationed at Nangalam had abandoned the outpost, along with his top staff.

“It was better before” the US left, says Afghan commander Col. Adam Khan Matin. “When the coalition forces left, the [insurgent] training camps came back.”

Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, the top US commander at Nangalam, grappled with how to address the regression. His battalion now had responsibility for an area that had previously needed two. His 800-plus soldiers were spread out across multiple forward operating bases and command posts.

Simply holding that ground would be challenge enough. After evaluating the capabilities of the ANA at Nangalam, Col. Tuley came to a conclusion. “We needed to do something else.”

In his idea is a hope central to the American exit strategy: If US troops focused more intently on creating a workable partnership with the Afghans, perhaps the mentoring could make up for the diminished number of US troops and ensure that a decade's worth of US battles are for not for naught.

So began what Tuley calls a “permanent embedded partnership” – or PEP – an experiment that could hold lessons for the American war effort in Afghanistan.

The PEP will revolve around 40 US troops at Nangalam working with multiple companies of the Afghan Army. Most immediately, with a stronger base here, Tuley hopes US forces “can come in and do operations as necessary,” allowing NATO to extend its reach farther into the valley. Perhaps more long-term, he adds, the PEP “is a great kind of interim phase to get the ANA to where [the transition is] not as abrupt.”

The US platoon will run workshops on basics from marksmanship to first aid – lessons that have been taught before, Tuley acknowledges, but bear repeating.

“If you think about it, this [Afghan commander at Nangalam] never had a partnership, Tuley adds. “It was. ‘Here’s your battlespace.’ ”

The first order of business – and lesson for Afghan commanders – is to bolster base defenses. When the US was here, Nangalam had early-attack warning systems, including towers with cameras that sent images to screens in a base defense center, which allowed troops to monitor the perimeter.

When Tuley returned, no vestige of those defenses remained. “The security definitely wasn’t at the level that I would ever feel too comfortable having my soldiers out there,” he says.

In response, he has assigned a US platoon of about 30 soldiers to patrol the surrounding area, and he stationed a single US soldier with night-vision goggles at each Afghan guard post along the perimeter of the base.

Beyond base defenses, Tuley must help the Afghans carry out their own missions more effectively.

The PEP's first big test: A humanitarian mission into one of the more isolated and government-averse areas of the country.

Testing a new partnership

The mission was an Afghan command idea, and US officials are pleased to see Afghan soldiers taking a page from the US playbook: following violent operations with aid for villages, in the hopes of mitigating hard feelings and demonstrating the reach of the Afghan government.

The plan is to convoy from Kunar up north into the neighboring province of Nuristan, an area where US troops have not been since 2009.

“We’re doing this really to show that the government and the military and the civil authorities can provide for the people, even in the most separated and disparate areas, areas,” says Lt. Col. Pat Stich, the brigade operations officer.

A few hours into the mission, as Afghan and US commanders touch base during a battlefield update, Afghan mission leaders want help in the form of close air support (CAS).

“We definitely need more CAS, because they are trying to shoot our convoys,” one Afghan commander points out.

Then, as nightfall comes, the convoy troops have decided to stop. “It’s dark, so we’ll stay here,” the Afghan commander explains.

By the basic rulebook of modern warfare this is a bad idea, leaving the convoy vulnerable to attack. US officers gently press them to continue in spite of the dark.

“It would be good if you could make it up to Chapadara” – a district center in northern Kunar.

“We’ll keep trying,” comes the reply. “But if there are some obstacles, or IEDs, we’ll stop.”

Without question, Afghan security forces face a tough fight. In addition to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), insurgents have shaved down dirt on the side of the roads, for example, to make them too narrow for US armored vehicles to traverse.

Afghans also lack equipment, including night-vision goggles. “That’s a pretty critical piece of equipment to provide security,” says Tuley. US officials worry, however, that if they give night-vision goggles to the Afghans, particularly with ANA attrition rates remaining high, they could fall into insurgents’ hands.

At the same time, US commanders are trying to ease the Afghans' reliance on American assets, from close-air support to medical evacuations – to help them become self-sufficient. “A lot of these things it makes them hard to wean them off of, because then they don’t want to do the missions without them,” says Lt. Col. Mark Simpson, 3rd brigade, 25th Infantry Division officer in charge of mentoring Afghan forces. “We don’t want to do the missions without them.”

Deciding precisely when to cut off the Afghans from the US equipment and supply chains will require some “very, very hard decisions, in my opinion, from the top,” says Simpson.

“In the next couple of months, we’re supposed to figure out a plan to get them to the next level – and then, what does it take to get them to the ultimate level” where Afghan troops can operate independently, he asks.

While the Afghan forces can “step out smartly” and execute most operations that US troops plan with them, commander agree that there are often problems with the vital details along the way.

“You ask, ‘OK, what’s your transportation plan? Who’s the convoy commander? Do you have three days supply of food and water? What if a vehicle breaks – are you going to tow it or leave it?’ " Simpson says. "Those kinds of things bog them down big time.”

As the 2014 deadline approaches, “without anyone having to say it, I feel a massive sense of urgency,” Simpson says.

But while the pressure to increase the self-sufficiency of the Afghan security forces is immense, “Nobody wants to be that guy that completely cuts the cord on their watch, because, No. 1, they’ve become so dependent on us.”

“And No. 2, I think we’re kind of leery to see that if we cut the cord on them what’s really going to happen is that they fall on their face.”

Only the beginning

As the humanitarian mission progresses, Afghan officials decide that they would like their forces to make a second run into Nuristan, to demonstrate the reach of the government. No one is looking forward to breaking this news to the Afghan soldiers, who they fear will be reluctant to go into dangerous territory during the fasting month of Ramadan, when they can’t drink water or eat during daylight hours.

Says one officer: “They don’t have the capacity to deal with the request.”

They will need US assets, including air support and roadside bomb detection trucks, for this mission as well. US officers worry, however, in some cases US troops could be provoking rather than suppressing violence. Many residents here are simply opposed to any outside presence.

“A lot of people in the valley, they see governance, they see development, they just don’t want it. They want to be left alone,” says Tuley. “You come in there and there’s going to be a fight. Now a fight’s good if you’re really making progress. But in some of these areas, you’re probably just exacerbating things.”

For now, however, the US troop presence at Nangalam is likely only to increase.

As the first week of partnership at Nangalam winds to a close, Tuley is increasingly convinced that rather than the 40-plus soldiers currently taking part in the PEP, he will need closer to 200.

He knows, too, that this plan comes with opportunity costs. With US forces set to draw down across Afghanistan, he can only bolster the American presence at Nangalam by closing a combat outpost or a forward operating base.

After the PEP’s first big mission, though, he believes that expanding US forces here is key to US troops being able to one day go home for good. Looking around at the growing stacks of boxes filled with food for the soldiers, he says, “It will grow.”

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