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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”