.
I

n early March, a document outlining a potential political settlement in Afghanistan was leaked, offering insights into how the newly elected Biden administration may extricate the United States from its involvement in that country. Under the proposed agreement, Turkey would hold talks between the Taliban and the elected government of Afghanistan aimed at establishing an interim power-sharing arrangement. The new government would draft a new constitution and hold new elections. The agreement demands that the Taliban dismantle its overseas presence, such as in Pakistan—a presence the Taliban deny and a provision that the militant group would almost certainly refuse. The agreement, if signed, would call for an immediate “permanent and comprehensive” cease-fire. The agreement also calls for multi-lateral talks with China, Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan for a “unified approach to peace in Afghanistan”.

The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley | Wesley Morgan | Random House.

The proposed agreement comes as the administration is reviewing American troop levels in Afghanistan ahead of a May 1 deadline to fully withdraw all forces from the country—a deadline set under President Trump. The Trump administration reached a peace agreement with the Taliban requiring the group to halt its offensive operations against American forces, sever its ties with al-Qa’ida, and cooperate with the government in Kabul. For its part, Kabul balked at the release of Taliban prisoners—a stipulation of the agreement—and the Taliban have not kept to the cease-fire accord.

The core of the challenge is how to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and leave behind a stable government in Kabul that is not at risk of regressing to a pre-9/11 state—one in which a theocratic regime plays host to al-Qa’ida or other Islamist terrorist groups and from which attacks against the West are launched. The last 20 years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism have yielded considerable results, but the ultimate nation-building enterprise has faltered, perhaps too ambitious from the beginning.

Mr. Wesley Morgan offers a penetrating look at the Afghanistan campaign through the lens of one part of the country—the Pech Valley—in his exceptional new book The Hardest Place. In raw, frank, and exquisite reporting, Mr. Morgan tracks American military involvement in the Pech Valley, marrying on the ground reporting from both American and Afghan perspectives with in-depth analyses of intelligence sources and other reports.

As others have written, he goes beyond simply recounting the battles but explores what the battles mean and the “why” behind them—sadly and infuriatingly for the reader and the American public, the answers “why” are very much wanting in Mr. Morgan’s accounting. Mr. Morgan unpacks the gradual mission creep that emerged in the Pech Valley, answering the critical “why” question behind the American presence in that part of Afghanistan.

By focusing on the Pech Valley in such exquisite detail, Mr. Morgan provides a sweeping overview of the campaign from the insertion of the first Green Beret teams in the Spring of 2002 through to the transition to Afghan National Army primacy and the drone campaigns against the Islamic State. Mr. Morgan’s micro-focus on the Pech Valley offers fascinating insights and assessments into the macro-level campaign challenges, the shifting objectives, and the often disconnected from the tactical and operational levels from the strategic-level picture.

The Hardest Place is a difficult read in that it forces the reader to confront the failings of the Afghanistan campaign juxtaposed with the incredible heroism and bravery of the soldiers, Marines, and intelligence professionals that fought in the Pech Valley. The disconnect between their actions and appreciable, lasting progress is stark, as is the cost for both the Americans and the Afghan civilians.  

Hostile Terrain

With 10,000-foot peaks, sheer vertical rock faces, and rock caves and nooks in which insurgents could hide, the terrain made every movement, every operation, and every mission exponentially more challenging. The physical terrain was nearly as hostile as the social terrain. With forward operating bases and combat outposts often located on the valley floors or wherever there may be flat terrain for helicopter landings, defense of these locations became exceedingly challenging. The insurgents very much enjoyed the advantage, nullifying many of the American military’s technological capabilities.  

Moreover, the competing Iraq theatre drew resources necessary for effective operations in Afghanistan away. Helicopters, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and fire support assets were, especially early in the Iraq campaign, diverted to the Middle East. In one staggering note from Mr. Morgan, “Chronic under-resourcing of the Afghan theatre had created a situation where most of the time just two Apache attack helicopters were aloft over a violent, mountainous, three-province region the size of New Jersey.”

A recurring argument in Mr. Morgan’s book is whether or not the Pech Valley would be violent were the Americans not there, a question that is left unanswered. What is clear is that the American physical presence in, and involvement in, the Valley’s politics disrupted whatever normalcy existed. By siding with one figure or another, the American military alienated another. By enforcing an Afghan government edict banning logging (based on a flawed assessment of deforestation), the American military interrupted the economic livelihood of the population in the Valley, thereby becoming the enemy in the eyes of the local Afghan population. The civilian casualties led to an increasingly hostile and calcified population, one that would never acquiesce to the American or Afghan government counterinsurgency efforts.

The social fabric of the Valley, with its myriad of languages, tribes, and families, made operating there even more challenging. With a paucity of translators to begin with and virtually no translators with the unique dialects of the Valley, communication was exceptionally difficult. Identifying, requiring, and running agents—a challenge to begin with for the CIA—became doubly so with the shifting human terrain, unclear alliances, and mercenary nature of many agents who would sell the same information to multiple units or simply tell the officers what the agents thought they wanted to hear.

This is to say nothing of the day-to-day operations. Units had little idea who was sitting across the table from them or where their loyalties lay. In the words of one officer, “At that first shura we held the day after we flew in, we were sitting down essentially the elders of the insurgency in the valley… but we didn’t know that at the time. We thought the Korengali population was being coerced by outsiders…”

Institutional Memory & Turnover

The challenges of institutional memory are vividly on display as unit after unit rotates into the Valley, confronts their own challenges, and then rotates out, handing over the problems to their successor unit. While there are transitions and handover ceremonies, the transfer of knowledge can never be complete. After a year or more in the Valley, units are often only scratching the surface of understanding the complex tribal dynamics, economics, and politics of the communities in which they find themselves. Once they redeploy, that knowledge and insight is lost—however thorough the handover may be—and the new unit must regain that knowledge, often at a high cost.

The only time at which this was overcome was when it sent officers or units back to the same places for multiple tours, but this was more often than not by accident or by the initiative of the individual, and not until later in the Afghanistan campaign. As Mr. Morgan writes, the “unit rotation system…both locked incoming units into the ‘footprints’ of outgoing ones and limited the ability of newly arrived commanders to understand the nuances of their predecessors’ approaches.”

One character featured in Mr. Morgan’s book is T.W., a consultant with the Asymmetric Warfare Group who sought to counter the IED threat in the Valley. He made the equivalent of over a dozen deployments to the Pech Valley with multiple, different units and served as a living embodiment of institutional knowledge. He saw what worked, what didn’t, and the repetitive challenges successive units encountered. Yet, he was only one person.

Arriving units often did not know why a forward operating base or combat outpost had been established. It just existed. The original rationale or thought process behind the construction of that facility was lost as units rotated in and out of the facilities. Myth became a legend, and the only reason units were fighting at these locations was because units were there before them.

For their Afghan counterparts, it is equally Groundhog Day. The relationships they established with their American interlocutors are reset with the arrival of new units. For enterprising tribal leaders and politicians, it was a new opportunity to engage with and possibly swindle their American counterparts or settle scores with business or political rivals. Most damningly, the new units often represented unfulfilled promises and failed expectations.

As Mr. Morgan writes, for the Afghans, they thought: “We know you mean well, but you can’t really do anything for us. You say you’re going to build a clinic, but then you only build it right by your base. You say you’re going to build a road, but you can’t build a road. And you won’t be here forever. So, we talk to you just like we talked to the other companies and like we talked to the Russians.”

Accountability & Heroism

There is heroism on nearly every page, but that’s not the point. The bravery of the soldiers and Marines who fought in the Pech Valley is not in question, but whether or not their bravery and sacrifice were connected to a greater purpose. Was the blood spilled and the treasure spent in the Pech Valley worth what was gained? Were their bravery and sacrifice even necessary? It is here, perhaps, that Mr. Morgan’s book is the most difficult to read and to consider.  

The failed Red Wings mission here, is illustrative; an incident in which three SEALs were killed and a fourth captured—Marcus Luttrell, whose book Lone Survivor brought the incident to widespread public attention (if embellished, as Mr. Morgan recounts)—and 16 others were killed in a rescue attempt. As Mr. Morgan writes, the separate chains of command and associated chains of communication prevented a rapid response to the incident and, arguably, the mission should never have happened in the first place.

The likelihood of a four-man reconnaissance team operating undetected after a helicopter insertion was virtually zero, as other operations in the area had indicated. Yet those lessons had not been passed on. Perhaps most damning is the fact that the mission itself targeted an individual of little strategic value, one who was unconnected to al-Qa’ida and barely had any influence outside of the Valley itself.

Three years after Red Wings, in the Battle of Wanat, over 200 Taliban attacked a U.S. facility and observation post, killing nine Americans and wounding 27 others. The Taliban managed to attack the outposts, achieving tactical surprise despite intelligence suggesting an attack would occur. A post-incident investigation initially reprimanded the senior commanders (one of whom also received the Silver Star for his actions in defense of the outposts) for “failing to properly prepare defenses”, reprimands which were later rescinded by General Charles C. Campbell for the potential impact they would have on the ground.

At the macro-level, there is a lack of accountability on the part of the senior military officers involved in the Pech Valley, but it is equally unclear how and for what they could be held accountable. At the operational level the commanders were advancing the mission as they understood it, and certainly at the tactical level the soldiers and Marines were fighting diligently and working, where possible, to support the counterinsurgency mission.

Yet, little progress was made, significant casualties were sustained, and a great deal of money was spent on an arguably strategically insignificant Valley. Here the political failures are most glaringly apparent. This disconnect between these operational and tactical successes against the strategic-level political failings is readily apparent.

Missions at Cross Purposes

The American mission in Afghanistan was torn between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, which often worked at cross purposes. Counterinsurgency doctrine aims to separate the people from the insurgents, depriving the latter of the support (willing or unwilling) from the former. Successful campaigns, such as Malaya, often physically removed the population from the area, providing security and support via strategic hamlets.

The theory breaks down, however, when the terrain is so exceedingly hostile and, more importantly, when the insurgents are the population. Families, tribal or otherwise, are unlikely to turn over fathers, brothers, sons, or cousins to an “occupying force” in the best of circumstances, but certainly not when that family’s livelihood has been disrupted or destroyed, or if a family member was killed by the force in question. Moreover, the ultimate (if unacknowledged) challenge of the ink-blot strategy is the need, as Colonel Drew Poppas put it, for a surface that is willing to absorb the ink. Nangalam in the Pech Valley, in this case, was “more like plastic; it wasn’t absorbing the ink.”

The question of civilian casualties becomes exceptionally vivid in Mr. Morgan’s writing. Far from an abstraction question of numbers or probability divorced from the situation on the ground, civilian casualties likely had an outsized impact on the hardening of the local population against the American military presence. An early mistake by a Green Beret that led to the death of one man in the early days of the conflict may have been forgiven, but repeated incidents calcified the population against the military over time.

It is here that the conflict of COIN versus counterterrorism becomes readily apparent. The counterterrorism mission aimed to kill or capture suspected al-Qa’ida members (the original impetus for America’s involvement in the country). Through the use of Special Operations Forces and airstrikes, the American military sought to degrade and defeat al-Qa’ida, while the COIN mission sought to separate the population from these al-Qa’ida figures. Yet, the very tactics of the counter-terrorism mission often made the COIN mission increasingly difficult as civilian casualties resulted, social norms were violated, and tribal dynamics were disrupted.

The American Drawdown & Daesh

As the U.S. drew down in the Pech Valley and the Afghan government took its place, the question of the valley’s value remained. The government of Afghanistan’s priority and fixation in Pech seemed disconnected from a broader strategic campaign especially as the U.S. drew down from the area and the Afghan National Army (ANA) took over. Why it was important to Kabul was never entirely clear. Then-Lieutenant General Mark Milley, who would go on to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “In some ways it seemed to come down to pride.” Ashraf Ghani, for his part, said “the Waygal operation is all about psychology”.

The irony was that al-Qa’ida’s presence in Afghanistan, particularly in Kunar and Nuristan, was increasing as the United States was withdrawing. The increased pressure in Pakistan by the CIA drone program and Pakistani government offensives were forcing al-Qa’ida out of Pakistan and back into Afghanistan, into the very places the U.S. forces had searched at the outset of the campaign.

As Mr. Morgan writes, with the continued pullback of American special operations forces, the closure of forward-operating bases, and the transition to ANA primacy, airstrikes and drone strikes went from the main counterterrorism tool to the only tool the Pech Valley.

Drone strikes, in particular, were comparably low-risk, high-reward tools and ones that became the main modus operandi. The find, fix, finish model of what became “Operation Haymaker” successfully targeted militants across the Pech Valley, reducing collateral damage, but in doing so destroyed any potential intelligence. The program grew, however, to be “more about quantity over quality” in the words of one analyst. Progressively lower value targets were struck yet with remarkable precision thanks to increases in technology.

While it is true that the continued elimination of Taliban or al-Qa’ida figures, or more recently the Islamic State, is progress, if that progress is not connected to any strategic level initiative, the military and intelligence community will simply be playing whack-a-mole; in the words of one officer, “there will always be dragons to slay up there.”

Here, with the Islamic State, an odd arrangement emerged where the United States was, in effect, aiding the Taliban by using air power to strike at the former and thereby helping the latter. Yet, the question as to whether or not the Islamic State represented as significant a threat as it did in Syria and Iraq remains unanswered. In some cases, as Mr. Morgan writes, the “Islamic State” was simply the same militants the United States had been fighting in the Pech Valley, just rebranded and, in one case, literally switching flags. As Mr. Morgan writes, it is the realization of Osama bin Laden’s dictum that all al-Qa’ida, or in this case the Islamic State, had to do was go to a region and wave a flag, and the United States would follow.

Endgame

Readers of The Hardest Valley will find themselves having more questions than answers. As the Biden administration struggles to find its own way in the Afghanistan campaign, one wonders what was actually achieved and if that progress is ultimately sustainable. By what metric can the Afghanistan campaign be adequately measured? Is the fact that the fighting in Afghanistan occupied would-be militants and prevented attacks on the United States and the West, as some suggested? Was it the material degradation of al-Qa’ida? Was it the transformation of Afghanistan into a stable democratic state? Or was it an amalgamation of all of the above, and more?

That there has been some societal progress and improvement in the lives of everyday Afghans is undeniable and commendable, but will that societal progress survive in a power-sharing agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban? Or will the latter merely seek to outlast the former and reassert itself once again as a harsh theocratic regime?

Perhaps the greatest contribution from Mr. Morgan’s prolific and impressive writing is that the tactical and operational successes and failures by the brave soldiers, Marines, and intelligence professionals in the Pech Valley were, by no fault of their own, disconnected from a broader strategic mission with political ends that were viable, and resourced accordingly. The original mission of pursuing al-Qa’ida—why the forces were in the Pech Valley to begin with—transformed into a broader presence mission of unclear ends; one that became self-sustaining and the original rationale for which was lost with successive unit rotations. This is ultimately a failure of the political leadership and the senior commanders advising those elected officials. After 20 years of conflict, some public accounting for these failures is absolutely necessary and Mr. Morgan offers a welcome, if painful, start.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley

March 27, 2021

The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley | Wesley Morgan | Random House.

I

n early March, a document outlining a potential political settlement in Afghanistan was leaked, offering insights into how the newly elected Biden administration may extricate the United States from its involvement in that country. Under the proposed agreement, Turkey would hold talks between the Taliban and the elected government of Afghanistan aimed at establishing an interim power-sharing arrangement. The new government would draft a new constitution and hold new elections. The agreement demands that the Taliban dismantle its overseas presence, such as in Pakistan—a presence the Taliban deny and a provision that the militant group would almost certainly refuse. The agreement, if signed, would call for an immediate “permanent and comprehensive” cease-fire. The agreement also calls for multi-lateral talks with China, Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan for a “unified approach to peace in Afghanistan”.

The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley | Wesley Morgan | Random House.

The proposed agreement comes as the administration is reviewing American troop levels in Afghanistan ahead of a May 1 deadline to fully withdraw all forces from the country—a deadline set under President Trump. The Trump administration reached a peace agreement with the Taliban requiring the group to halt its offensive operations against American forces, sever its ties with al-Qa’ida, and cooperate with the government in Kabul. For its part, Kabul balked at the release of Taliban prisoners—a stipulation of the agreement—and the Taliban have not kept to the cease-fire accord.

The core of the challenge is how to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and leave behind a stable government in Kabul that is not at risk of regressing to a pre-9/11 state—one in which a theocratic regime plays host to al-Qa’ida or other Islamist terrorist groups and from which attacks against the West are launched. The last 20 years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism have yielded considerable results, but the ultimate nation-building enterprise has faltered, perhaps too ambitious from the beginning.

Mr. Wesley Morgan offers a penetrating look at the Afghanistan campaign through the lens of one part of the country—the Pech Valley—in his exceptional new book The Hardest Place. In raw, frank, and exquisite reporting, Mr. Morgan tracks American military involvement in the Pech Valley, marrying on the ground reporting from both American and Afghan perspectives with in-depth analyses of intelligence sources and other reports.

As others have written, he goes beyond simply recounting the battles but explores what the battles mean and the “why” behind them—sadly and infuriatingly for the reader and the American public, the answers “why” are very much wanting in Mr. Morgan’s accounting. Mr. Morgan unpacks the gradual mission creep that emerged in the Pech Valley, answering the critical “why” question behind the American presence in that part of Afghanistan.

By focusing on the Pech Valley in such exquisite detail, Mr. Morgan provides a sweeping overview of the campaign from the insertion of the first Green Beret teams in the Spring of 2002 through to the transition to Afghan National Army primacy and the drone campaigns against the Islamic State. Mr. Morgan’s micro-focus on the Pech Valley offers fascinating insights and assessments into the macro-level campaign challenges, the shifting objectives, and the often disconnected from the tactical and operational levels from the strategic-level picture.

The Hardest Place is a difficult read in that it forces the reader to confront the failings of the Afghanistan campaign juxtaposed with the incredible heroism and bravery of the soldiers, Marines, and intelligence professionals that fought in the Pech Valley. The disconnect between their actions and appreciable, lasting progress is stark, as is the cost for both the Americans and the Afghan civilians.  

Hostile Terrain

With 10,000-foot peaks, sheer vertical rock faces, and rock caves and nooks in which insurgents could hide, the terrain made every movement, every operation, and every mission exponentially more challenging. The physical terrain was nearly as hostile as the social terrain. With forward operating bases and combat outposts often located on the valley floors or wherever there may be flat terrain for helicopter landings, defense of these locations became exceedingly challenging. The insurgents very much enjoyed the advantage, nullifying many of the American military’s technological capabilities.  

Moreover, the competing Iraq theatre drew resources necessary for effective operations in Afghanistan away. Helicopters, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and fire support assets were, especially early in the Iraq campaign, diverted to the Middle East. In one staggering note from Mr. Morgan, “Chronic under-resourcing of the Afghan theatre had created a situation where most of the time just two Apache attack helicopters were aloft over a violent, mountainous, three-province region the size of New Jersey.”

A recurring argument in Mr. Morgan’s book is whether or not the Pech Valley would be violent were the Americans not there, a question that is left unanswered. What is clear is that the American physical presence in, and involvement in, the Valley’s politics disrupted whatever normalcy existed. By siding with one figure or another, the American military alienated another. By enforcing an Afghan government edict banning logging (based on a flawed assessment of deforestation), the American military interrupted the economic livelihood of the population in the Valley, thereby becoming the enemy in the eyes of the local Afghan population. The civilian casualties led to an increasingly hostile and calcified population, one that would never acquiesce to the American or Afghan government counterinsurgency efforts.

The social fabric of the Valley, with its myriad of languages, tribes, and families, made operating there even more challenging. With a paucity of translators to begin with and virtually no translators with the unique dialects of the Valley, communication was exceptionally difficult. Identifying, requiring, and running agents—a challenge to begin with for the CIA—became doubly so with the shifting human terrain, unclear alliances, and mercenary nature of many agents who would sell the same information to multiple units or simply tell the officers what the agents thought they wanted to hear.

This is to say nothing of the day-to-day operations. Units had little idea who was sitting across the table from them or where their loyalties lay. In the words of one officer, “At that first shura we held the day after we flew in, we were sitting down essentially the elders of the insurgency in the valley… but we didn’t know that at the time. We thought the Korengali population was being coerced by outsiders…”

Institutional Memory & Turnover

The challenges of institutional memory are vividly on display as unit after unit rotates into the Valley, confronts their own challenges, and then rotates out, handing over the problems to their successor unit. While there are transitions and handover ceremonies, the transfer of knowledge can never be complete. After a year or more in the Valley, units are often only scratching the surface of understanding the complex tribal dynamics, economics, and politics of the communities in which they find themselves. Once they redeploy, that knowledge and insight is lost—however thorough the handover may be—and the new unit must regain that knowledge, often at a high cost.

The only time at which this was overcome was when it sent officers or units back to the same places for multiple tours, but this was more often than not by accident or by the initiative of the individual, and not until later in the Afghanistan campaign. As Mr. Morgan writes, the “unit rotation system…both locked incoming units into the ‘footprints’ of outgoing ones and limited the ability of newly arrived commanders to understand the nuances of their predecessors’ approaches.”

One character featured in Mr. Morgan’s book is T.W., a consultant with the Asymmetric Warfare Group who sought to counter the IED threat in the Valley. He made the equivalent of over a dozen deployments to the Pech Valley with multiple, different units and served as a living embodiment of institutional knowledge. He saw what worked, what didn’t, and the repetitive challenges successive units encountered. Yet, he was only one person.

Arriving units often did not know why a forward operating base or combat outpost had been established. It just existed. The original rationale or thought process behind the construction of that facility was lost as units rotated in and out of the facilities. Myth became a legend, and the only reason units were fighting at these locations was because units were there before them.

For their Afghan counterparts, it is equally Groundhog Day. The relationships they established with their American interlocutors are reset with the arrival of new units. For enterprising tribal leaders and politicians, it was a new opportunity to engage with and possibly swindle their American counterparts or settle scores with business or political rivals. Most damningly, the new units often represented unfulfilled promises and failed expectations.

As Mr. Morgan writes, for the Afghans, they thought: “We know you mean well, but you can’t really do anything for us. You say you’re going to build a clinic, but then you only build it right by your base. You say you’re going to build a road, but you can’t build a road. And you won’t be here forever. So, we talk to you just like we talked to the other companies and like we talked to the Russians.”

Accountability & Heroism

There is heroism on nearly every page, but that’s not the point. The bravery of the soldiers and Marines who fought in the Pech Valley is not in question, but whether or not their bravery and sacrifice were connected to a greater purpose. Was the blood spilled and the treasure spent in the Pech Valley worth what was gained? Were their bravery and sacrifice even necessary? It is here, perhaps, that Mr. Morgan’s book is the most difficult to read and to consider.  

The failed Red Wings mission here, is illustrative; an incident in which three SEALs were killed and a fourth captured—Marcus Luttrell, whose book Lone Survivor brought the incident to widespread public attention (if embellished, as Mr. Morgan recounts)—and 16 others were killed in a rescue attempt. As Mr. Morgan writes, the separate chains of command and associated chains of communication prevented a rapid response to the incident and, arguably, the mission should never have happened in the first place.

The likelihood of a four-man reconnaissance team operating undetected after a helicopter insertion was virtually zero, as other operations in the area had indicated. Yet those lessons had not been passed on. Perhaps most damning is the fact that the mission itself targeted an individual of little strategic value, one who was unconnected to al-Qa’ida and barely had any influence outside of the Valley itself.

Three years after Red Wings, in the Battle of Wanat, over 200 Taliban attacked a U.S. facility and observation post, killing nine Americans and wounding 27 others. The Taliban managed to attack the outposts, achieving tactical surprise despite intelligence suggesting an attack would occur. A post-incident investigation initially reprimanded the senior commanders (one of whom also received the Silver Star for his actions in defense of the outposts) for “failing to properly prepare defenses”, reprimands which were later rescinded by General Charles C. Campbell for the potential impact they would have on the ground.

At the macro-level, there is a lack of accountability on the part of the senior military officers involved in the Pech Valley, but it is equally unclear how and for what they could be held accountable. At the operational level the commanders were advancing the mission as they understood it, and certainly at the tactical level the soldiers and Marines were fighting diligently and working, where possible, to support the counterinsurgency mission.

Yet, little progress was made, significant casualties were sustained, and a great deal of money was spent on an arguably strategically insignificant Valley. Here the political failures are most glaringly apparent. This disconnect between these operational and tactical successes against the strategic-level political failings is readily apparent.

Missions at Cross Purposes

The American mission in Afghanistan was torn between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, which often worked at cross purposes. Counterinsurgency doctrine aims to separate the people from the insurgents, depriving the latter of the support (willing or unwilling) from the former. Successful campaigns, such as Malaya, often physically removed the population from the area, providing security and support via strategic hamlets.

The theory breaks down, however, when the terrain is so exceedingly hostile and, more importantly, when the insurgents are the population. Families, tribal or otherwise, are unlikely to turn over fathers, brothers, sons, or cousins to an “occupying force” in the best of circumstances, but certainly not when that family’s livelihood has been disrupted or destroyed, or if a family member was killed by the force in question. Moreover, the ultimate (if unacknowledged) challenge of the ink-blot strategy is the need, as Colonel Drew Poppas put it, for a surface that is willing to absorb the ink. Nangalam in the Pech Valley, in this case, was “more like plastic; it wasn’t absorbing the ink.”

The question of civilian casualties becomes exceptionally vivid in Mr. Morgan’s writing. Far from an abstraction question of numbers or probability divorced from the situation on the ground, civilian casualties likely had an outsized impact on the hardening of the local population against the American military presence. An early mistake by a Green Beret that led to the death of one man in the early days of the conflict may have been forgiven, but repeated incidents calcified the population against the military over time.

It is here that the conflict of COIN versus counterterrorism becomes readily apparent. The counterterrorism mission aimed to kill or capture suspected al-Qa’ida members (the original impetus for America’s involvement in the country). Through the use of Special Operations Forces and airstrikes, the American military sought to degrade and defeat al-Qa’ida, while the COIN mission sought to separate the population from these al-Qa’ida figures. Yet, the very tactics of the counter-terrorism mission often made the COIN mission increasingly difficult as civilian casualties resulted, social norms were violated, and tribal dynamics were disrupted.

The American Drawdown & Daesh

As the U.S. drew down in the Pech Valley and the Afghan government took its place, the question of the valley’s value remained. The government of Afghanistan’s priority and fixation in Pech seemed disconnected from a broader strategic campaign especially as the U.S. drew down from the area and the Afghan National Army (ANA) took over. Why it was important to Kabul was never entirely clear. Then-Lieutenant General Mark Milley, who would go on to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “In some ways it seemed to come down to pride.” Ashraf Ghani, for his part, said “the Waygal operation is all about psychology”.

The irony was that al-Qa’ida’s presence in Afghanistan, particularly in Kunar and Nuristan, was increasing as the United States was withdrawing. The increased pressure in Pakistan by the CIA drone program and Pakistani government offensives were forcing al-Qa’ida out of Pakistan and back into Afghanistan, into the very places the U.S. forces had searched at the outset of the campaign.

As Mr. Morgan writes, with the continued pullback of American special operations forces, the closure of forward-operating bases, and the transition to ANA primacy, airstrikes and drone strikes went from the main counterterrorism tool to the only tool the Pech Valley.

Drone strikes, in particular, were comparably low-risk, high-reward tools and ones that became the main modus operandi. The find, fix, finish model of what became “Operation Haymaker” successfully targeted militants across the Pech Valley, reducing collateral damage, but in doing so destroyed any potential intelligence. The program grew, however, to be “more about quantity over quality” in the words of one analyst. Progressively lower value targets were struck yet with remarkable precision thanks to increases in technology.

While it is true that the continued elimination of Taliban or al-Qa’ida figures, or more recently the Islamic State, is progress, if that progress is not connected to any strategic level initiative, the military and intelligence community will simply be playing whack-a-mole; in the words of one officer, “there will always be dragons to slay up there.”

Here, with the Islamic State, an odd arrangement emerged where the United States was, in effect, aiding the Taliban by using air power to strike at the former and thereby helping the latter. Yet, the question as to whether or not the Islamic State represented as significant a threat as it did in Syria and Iraq remains unanswered. In some cases, as Mr. Morgan writes, the “Islamic State” was simply the same militants the United States had been fighting in the Pech Valley, just rebranded and, in one case, literally switching flags. As Mr. Morgan writes, it is the realization of Osama bin Laden’s dictum that all al-Qa’ida, or in this case the Islamic State, had to do was go to a region and wave a flag, and the United States would follow.

Endgame

Readers of The Hardest Valley will find themselves having more questions than answers. As the Biden administration struggles to find its own way in the Afghanistan campaign, one wonders what was actually achieved and if that progress is ultimately sustainable. By what metric can the Afghanistan campaign be adequately measured? Is the fact that the fighting in Afghanistan occupied would-be militants and prevented attacks on the United States and the West, as some suggested? Was it the material degradation of al-Qa’ida? Was it the transformation of Afghanistan into a stable democratic state? Or was it an amalgamation of all of the above, and more?

That there has been some societal progress and improvement in the lives of everyday Afghans is undeniable and commendable, but will that societal progress survive in a power-sharing agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban? Or will the latter merely seek to outlast the former and reassert itself once again as a harsh theocratic regime?

Perhaps the greatest contribution from Mr. Morgan’s prolific and impressive writing is that the tactical and operational successes and failures by the brave soldiers, Marines, and intelligence professionals in the Pech Valley were, by no fault of their own, disconnected from a broader strategic mission with political ends that were viable, and resourced accordingly. The original mission of pursuing al-Qa’ida—why the forces were in the Pech Valley to begin with—transformed into a broader presence mission of unclear ends; one that became self-sustaining and the original rationale for which was lost with successive unit rotations. This is ultimately a failure of the political leadership and the senior commanders advising those elected officials. After 20 years of conflict, some public accounting for these failures is absolutely necessary and Mr. Morgan offers a welcome, if painful, start.

About
Joshua Huminski
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Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.