U.S. Forces Close Post in Afghan ‘Valley of Death’

Just posting as I feel this is a very significant move -
its not intended to appear ant-US

KORANGAL OUTPOST, Afghanistan — The last American soldier left here Wednesday, abandoning a base surrounded by tall cedar trees and high mountains, in a place that came to be called the Valley of Death.
(April 14, 2010)

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times
A year ago, soldiers on patrol were in Donga, a village in the Korangal Valley. The closing of Korangal Outpost is part of an effort to consolidate and refocus American forces in Afghanistan.

The near daily battles here were won, but almost always at the cost of wounded or dead. There were never enough soldiers to crush the insurgency, and after four years, it became clear that there was not much worth winning in this sparsely populated valley.

Closing Korangal Outpost in Kunar Province, a powerful symbol of some of the Afghan war’s most ferocious fights, and a potential harbinger of America’s retreat, is a tacit admission that putting the base there in the first place was a costly mistake.

It is also part of an effort by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of forces here since last summer, to consolidate and refocus forces where they might change the momentum of what had become a losing contest.

Fighting for isolated mountain valleys like this one, even if they are hide-outs for clusters of Taliban, was no longer sustainable. It did more to spawn insurgents than defeat them. Better to put those soldiers in cities and towns where they could protect people and help them connect to the Afghan government, he reasoned.

“There’s never a perfect answer,” General McChrystal said as he visited this outpost on April 8 for a briefing as the withdrawal began. “I care deeply about everybody who has been hurt here, but I can’t do anything about it. I can do something about people who might be hurt in the future.

“The battle changes, the war changes,” he added. “If you don’t understand the dynamics, you have no chance of getting it right. We’ve been slower here than I would have liked.”

Forty-two Americans died fighting in the Korangal Valley and hundreds were wounded, according to the military. Most died in the period from 2006 to 2009. Many Afghan soldiers died as well, and in larger numbers, since they had poorer equipment. In a war characterized by small, brutal battles, the Korangal had more than its share, and its abandonment has left soldiers who fought there confronting confusion, anger and pain.

“It hurts,” said Specialist Robert Soto of Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry, who spent 12 months in the valley from 2008 to 2009. “It hurts on a level that — three units from the Army, we all did what we did up there. And we all lost men. We all sacrificed. I was 18 years old when I got there. I really would not have expected to go through what we went through at that age.”

During the period Specialist Soto served there half of his platoon was wounded or killed, according to the unit’s commanding officer. “It confuses me, why it took so long for them to realize that we weren’t making progress up there,” Specialist Soto said.

Korangal Outpost was the third area of eastern Afghanistan where combat outposts closed: In 2007 and 2008 two posts and a smaller satellite base were closed in the Waygal Valley of Nuristan Province; in 2009 two posts were closed in the Kamdesh region of Nuristan. Along with the main Korangal outpost, five satellite bases closed; at least two, Restrepo and Vimoto, were named for soldiers who died there.

Perched on a steep hillside sprinkled with gnarled trees, Korangal Outpost is little more than a dozen structures made of stone and wood and is heavily sandbagged. It is a primitive-looking place built into the hillside, like the nearby villages. Farther down the valley tower the deodar cedars that the Korangalis cut down to make their living.

The vulnerability of these combat outposts was hardly surprising. Though sparsely populated, Kunar and Nuristan Provinces have a long history of strident resistance to outsiders. Kunar was one of the first places to rise up against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, giving the area the label of “cradle of jihad.”

Much of the American mission in the last couple of years has been to try to get the reclusive people who live here to recognize the Afghan government and work with it. In some places that approach is reaping modest results. Not so in the Korangal.

The Korangalis speak a language unrelated to Pashto or Dari, the two main Afghan tongues. They practice a conservative brand of Islam and have repeatedly rebuffed American offers of aid.

The area remains under the influence of a Taliban shadow governor along with two Taliban leaders, Hajji Mateen and Nasrullah, who make their money from the valley’s lumber.

The sawmill and lumberyard run by Hajji Mateen was seized by Marines to build the Korangal outpost in April 2006. The troops had set out to penetrate the six-mile-long valley, but never made it more than halfway.
nytimes.com/2010/04/15/world … tpost.html

“It hurts,” said Specialist Robert Soto of Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry, who spent 12 months in the valley from 2008 to 2009. “It hurts on a level that — three units from the Army, we all did what we did up there. And we all lost men. We all sacrificed. I was 18 years old when I got there. I really would not have expected to go through what we went through at that age.

It begs the question - what comes next?

[b]Taliban moves into abandoned U.S. base

Elizabeth A. Kennedy – Associated Press April 20, 2010
Taliban fighters swarmed over a mountaintop base abandoned last week by the U.S. military following some of the toughest fighting of the Afghan war, according to footage aired Monday by a major satellite television station.

The video by Al-Jazeera is a morale booster for Taliban fighters, though the U.S. insists the decision to withdraw from the base in the Korengal Valley was sound and the area has no strategic value.

The footage showed armed men walking through the former U.S. base, which was strewn with litter and empty bottles, and sitting atop sandbagged gun positions overlooking the steep hillsides and craggy landscape. Fighters said they recovered fuel and ammunition. But a U.S. spokesman said ammunition had been evacuated and the fuel handed over to local residents.

“We don’t want Americans, we don’t want Germans or any other foreigner. We don’t want foreigners, we want peace. We want Taliban and Islam — we don’t want anything else,” one local resident said on the tape.

Another man identified by Al-Jazeera as a local Taliban commander said the militants intended to use the base for attacks on U.S. forces.

Maj. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, said the Americans destroyed major firing positions and observation posts before they left, and if militants tried to use the base “we have two companies that can do an air assault there anytime we want.”

The pullout last week of the remaining 120 U.S. soldiers from the Korengal was part of a strategy announced last year by the top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to abandon small, difficult-to-defend bases in remote, sparsely populated areas and concentrate forces around major population centers.

Many of those outposts were established years ago to monitor Taliban and al-Qaida infiltration from Pakistan but proved difficult to resupply and defend.

Last October, about 300 insurgents nearly overran a U.S. outpost in Kamdesh, located north of the Korengal Valley, killing eight Americans and three Afghan soldiers. It was the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces since an attack on another remote outpost in July 2008, in which nine Americans died.

“When we repositioned our forces, we knew that there was a real possibility of insurgent forces going into there, but we still believe that decision was the correct one based on the resources that we have available and the objectives that we want to achieve,” said a U.S. spokesman, Col. Wayne Shanks.

The withdrawal from Korengal, which U.S. troops dubbed the “Valley of Death,” marked the end of near-daily battles with insurgents in the 6-mile (10-kilometer) valley in Kunar province. More than 40 U.S. troops were killed there over the last five years.

They included three Navy SEALs who died in a 2005 ambush. Insurgents also shot down a helicopter carrying Special Forces sent to rescue the SEALS, killing another 16 Americans.

Also Monday, an American soldier was killed and several wounded in an explosion at an Afghan National Army facility just outside the capital, Kabul, Shanks said. The blast originally was reported to have killed an Afghan soldier.

Afghanistan’s intelligence service also announced the arrest of nine members of a militant cell and seized nearly a quarter-ton of explosives, foiling a plot to stage suicide bombings and other attacks in Kabul.

The cell could have been linked to five would-be suicide bombers arrested April 8 at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul. Officials said at the time the five were planning to hide out with a support network in the capital before launching attacks.

Intelligence service spokesman Saeed Ansari said four of the suspects were arrested Monday while traveling in a vehicle in the city’s eastern district, while five others were picked up at an Islamic school in Kabul.

He said security forces also confiscated six rifles, two machine guns, two rocket-propelled grenades, 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of explosives, six suicide bomb vests and a vehicle. The dates of the arrests were not disclosed.

The suspects, one of whom was a Pakistani citizen, ranged in age from 16 to 55 and had been given specific responsibilities within the group, such as arranging accommodation or transporting arms, Ansari said. Three members of the group were identified as would-be suicide bombers, although Ansari said the cell possessed enough explosives and vests to equip up to six suicide attackers.

He said the group was acting under orders from a Pakistan-based Taliban faction, which rented a house in eastern Kabul, shipped weapons across the border and provided funds for the purchase of a vehicle to be used in suicide attacks.

The last major attack within Kabul took place Feb. 26, when suicide bombers struck two small hotels in the center of the city, killing at least 16 people, including six Indians. Afghan authorities blamed the attack on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the same Pakistan-based Islamist militia that India blames for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.

In the southern province of Kandahar, meanwhile, a remote-controlled bomb planted on a donkey exploded near a police checkpoint Monday, killing three children aged 11, 12 and 15, said Zalmai Ayubi, spokesman for the governor.

The victims were nephews of Fazel Uddin Agha, a tribal elder in Kandahar who served as an election campaign manager for President Hamid Karzai last year, Ayubi said. The blast also wounded two police officers and two civilians.

An American soldier was also killed and several wounded in an explosion at an Afghan National Army facility just outside the capital, Kabul, Shanks, the U.S. military spokesman, said. The blast originally was reported to have killed an Afghan soldier.
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