February 25, 2008

The Valley Without Joy

Elizabeth Rubin has written the best piece of English-language war reporting from Afghanistan in the last year and possibly of the war. It's excellence forgives a story held so long...

(Was it released due to being scooped by Abu Muqawama--the apparent standard for a NY Times story "being ready"?)

She follows one of America's finest, Dan Kearney, as he steels the men of Battle Company for the toughest fight in Afghanistan--one inherited from 1-32 Infantry and, before them, the USMC (as an interesting aside, the Marine officer pictured in the lead online picture at the Battalion Tactical Operation Center, who shall remain nameless as Kip hasn't asked his permission, was serving in the area as an embedded trainer in October 2007 after walking the ground as a captain himself in 2004 and 2005)..

Kearney has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Kip guesses that Kearney has already served under more fire than all but at most a half-dozen US Army captains since Vietnam--and he still has a long time left before his unit rotates.

But as hard as Iraq was, he said, nothing was as tough as the Korengal. Unlike in Iraq, where the captains and lieutenants could let down their guard in a relatively safe, fortified operating base, swapping stories and ideas, here they had no one to talk to and were almost as vulnerable to enemy fire inside the wire as out.

These are tenuous footholds in the devil's lair, and no company is immune from a population where everyone wants you dead. For 2/503's men throughout the Peysch, Waygal, and Korengal valleys, the Ranch House is always on everyone's mind--it has to be.

Because the people of the Korengal give support to the insurgents, Kearney lives making tough calls that a nation-not-at-war can barely dream of. Do I kill the insurgents and the civilians among whom they hide, or do I let them get away?

When Kearney’s moment of decision came, two of 2nd Platoon’s sergeants, Kevin Rice and Tanner Stichter, had been shot, and the fight was still going on. Kearney could see a woman and child in the house. “We saw people moving weapons around,” Kearney told me. “I tried everything. I fired mortars to the back side to get the kids to run out the front. I shot to the left, to the right. The Apache” — an attack helicopter — “got shot at and left. I kept asking for a bomb drop, but no one wanted to sign off on the collateral damage of dropping a bomb on a house.” Finally, he said, “We shot a javelin and a tow” — both armor-piercing missiles. “I didn’t get shot at from there for two months,” Kearney said. “I ended up killing that woman and that kid.”

Afghanistan is a land of memory, impenetrable to the uninterested. A century-old grievance may sound to the newcomer as though it happened yesterday. One Pashto saying, although the Korengalis are not Pathans, can apply to much of the country, "If a man should take revenge after a hundred years, it is wondered why he is so hasty."

In the case of the Korengal Valley, the story began about a century ago, when the tribesmen now known as Korengalis were kicked out of the province of Nuristan (immediately north of Kunar province) and settled in the Korengal, which was rich with timber forests and farmland. Over time they made an alliance with one branch of the large Safi tribe, which once dominated Kunar politics. But down the road along the Pech River valley, the rest of the Safis opposed the Korengalis.

As the Afghans tell the story, from the moment the Americans arrived in 2001, the Pech Valley timber lords and warlords had their ear. Early on, they led the Americans to drop bombs on the mansion of their biggest rival — Haji Matin. The air strikes killed several members of his family, according to local residents, and the Americans arrested others and sent them to the prison at Bagram Air Base. The Pech Valley fighters working alongside the Americans then pillaged the mansion. And that was that. Haji Matin, already deeply religious, became ideological and joined with Abu Ikhlas, a local Arab linked to the foreign jihadis.

And while many of us are at war in Afghanistan, top-heavy staffs at international Afghan commands provide war tourism opportunities for under-utilized senior officers.

When some generals and colonels had flown in for a quick tour, and Kearney was showing them the lay of the land, one officer said to another, as Kearney later recalled it, “I don’t know why we’re even out here.” Another officer jumped in to talk up the logic of the operation. Kearney told me he thought: Sort your stuff out before you come out here. My boys are sucking it up and dying. . . . For besides being lord of the valley, he had another role to play — motivator, disciplinarian and confidant to his soldiers. “It’s like being in charge of a soap opera,” he told me. “I feel like Dr. Phil with guns.”

Valley to valley, Afghanistan presents unique fights to international forces. Deploying soldiers and Marines who read this should remember that the pinnacle of professionalism dictates that they understand the different protection posture required of a Pech Valley and of a Korengal Valley and of a Jalalabad city. Some places are Korengals regardless of what you do; others will become Korengals if you treat them as such.

Down the road in the Pech Valley, soldiers played cricket with Afghan kids and had organized boxing and soccer matches. Lt. Kareem Hernandez, a New Yorker running a base on the Pech River, regularly bantered over dinner with the Afghan police. Neighbors would come by with tips. But here in the Korengal, the soldiers were completely alienated from the local culture.

This is graduate-level warfare; yet the challenge is that it must be understood by high-school graduates if we are to win.

It was a lot to ask of young soldiers: play killer, cultural anthropologist, hearts-and-minds winner and then killer again. Which is why, just hours before the mission was to begin, some soldiers were smearing black-and-green war paint on their faces when their sergeant shouted: “Take it off. Now!” Why? They’d frighten the villagers.

Effective operations in COIN are the result of effective human intelligence. Yet the Korengalis are a homogeneous group, speaking their own language, located in a single valley in the world, tied tightly by kinship and long struggle. Where the people side with the enemy, the counterinsurgents are "blind boxers."

In the logic of war, the best antidote for the menacing ghostliness of the ambushing enemy is killing and knowing you’ve killed them. The soldiers in the Korengal almost never had that kind of satisfaction. Any insurgents, if they were killed, would be buried fast, and all that was left in their wake were wounded civilians.

Progress for Battle company from the KOP is measured in yards. Winning minds is measured in millimeters (hearts are not won in the Korengal).

“Ah!” Kearney said, throwing up his hands. “So you were down there in the village when I gave radios and food. But instead you say I shoot at you all the time?” Kearney swung his legs back and forth. “Hey dude, ask yourself. Why would I bring you radios and food and shoot at you? Does Aminullah? No. What happened that day after I left?” The boy said all he knew was that the villagers went home and “they” started shooting. “Where?” Kearney asked, “from your village?”

“What can I say? The Americans were in my village.”

“Yeah, so I was doing good stuff for you guys and they shot at me. And what I’m trying to say is they could have shot at you again. And if I shoot at your house I’ll help. We’ll fix up that wall. I’m not here to hurt you.”

Everyone was getting restless in the little check post. Kearney tried to lighten up a bit. He asked the boy what he thought about the Americans.

“You build roads and clinics and schools and are here to help,” the boy said.

“Cop out,” Kearney shouted, chuckling. “Easy answer. Hey dude, you can say we’re rotten and messing up your lumber trade.” The boy laughed. Kearney laughed. Pfc. Michael Cunningham, the radio operator, and Sgt. Taylor White, who always manned the check post, both laughed.

“See, I knew it,” Kearney said. “That’s what you really think. Think I want to be here?”

“Yeah,” the boy said. “I think so.”

“Dude. I got a wife and son. I came here to help you out. If you give me as much help as possible I’ll get out of here a hell of a lot faster.”

COIN is not warfare for the meek but rather requires life-or-death decisions on the long-term perceptions of your actions while your life is being threatened and your friends are bleeding or dead...

The F-15 known as Dude was en route, the Apaches were chasing men and Kearney — who had bolted down the mountain, throwing grenades in caves — was barking orders. Kearney was badly shaken. He adored Rougle, and he’d broken down when he saw his big old buddy Rice bleeding at the landing zone. Rice comforted him and then lumbered to the helicopter, just asking to talk to his wife before they put him under.

And worst, the bad guys are terrible, tough SOBs, existing on some milk, bread, oil, and eggs. Not many days are good in the Korengal. Some are worse than others.

Kearney was watching a crow flying above us. “Taliban are right,” he said. “Like they said yesterday, follow the birds, they follow the Americans. I wish I was made as strong as haj” — their nickname for insurgents. “They were balls to do what they did. And guess what? I’m not gonna lie. They won.”

How does Kearney feel about the toughest company command in Afghanistan?

But leave the Korengal, as the colonel had suggested, and let some other company deal with it? No way. He’d spent five months learning the valley, getting involved in it; he couldn’t just pull out. At least he would keep the insurgents busy here so the other companies could do hearts and minds unimpeded down along the Pech river. “I lost seven dudes here,” he told me. “It’s too much blood. I don’t want to give this up. This is mine.”

The article ends mentioning momentarily a reprisal ambush, conducted outside the Korengal (read more here). In fact, it was the single deadliest attack on US troops in Afghanistan in the past year, killing six Americans and three Afghans. At the time of that attack, according to an ABC News Report (which Kip cannot link to), the 2/503 had been involved in over 450 "TICs" (Troops in Contact, i.e., engaged by the enemy) in its five months in Afghanistan.

But the spirit of the American soldier is eternal, "It could always be worse," says SGT Jeffery Mersman in an interview earlier this year (Alas, SGT Mersman was one of the men killed in the ambush).

For the sake of the brave men of the 2nd / 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment, Kip prays for you and hopes it only gets better.