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Leaving Korengal -- COIN Retreats from the Valley of Death

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Previously published at Demagogues and Dictators

This week, US Forces withdrew from Afghanistan's Korengal Valley -- known more commonly to those who served there as "the valley of death". It is a story that has landed relatively quietly in the US media, and deserves much more attention.

US troops arrived in the Korengal in 2005 -- they moved in, claiming the high ground of the tiny, isolated valley, and prepared for an impossible mission. The strategy was for those soldiers to draw the fire and attention from Taliban and foreign fighters who sought to enter into Afghanistan from the Pakistani theater via the .8km-wide valley.

The goal was not to secure the valley, nor to block the valley's entrance. The goal was to tie up insurgents in a battle away from more populated regions of Afghanistan.

The goal was put quite frankly by the Washington Post:

"The troops were, in essence, bullet magnets. "

Since 2005, over 40 US soldiers have been killed, hundreds wounded. The soldiers were met by daily small arms fire, ambushes, IED attacks, and mortar fire from the surrounding hills. Some of the fire came from Taliban, more from local insurgencies who sought to oppose the central government's expanded control over the remote valley -- filled with 5,000 fiercely independent Korengalis -- who speak their own language, and follow many of their own customs.

This year, a new command structure in Afghanistan has come to the conclusion that ISAF operations in Korengal run higher risks than rewards. The conclusion was that Capt. Mark Moretti's troops in the valley had not stumbled not into a hive of Taliban insurgency, but an internecine blood feud between Korengalis, who sought, above all, to be left to their own devices.

The thinking is straight forward -- that US troop presence in the Korengal had provoked the very insurgency that they then sought to counter. The removal of those troops, in Gen. McChrystal's calculus, will remove these soldiers from an impossible situation. As long as these soldiers stay, the violence in Korengal will continue. If they leave, there is a chance it may stop.

In this, Korengal may prove anathema to the prevailing ideological wind blown from Gen. Rupert Smith's manifesto "The Utility of Force", which argues that soldiers in today's "wars amongst the people" must "fight to create space" between the citizenry and insurgents -- therefore allowing room for humanitarian assistance, infrastructure creation, the implementation of the rule of law, and the facilitated buy-in of the non-combatant citizenry into the centralized government supported by counter-insurgent forces.

In Korengal, the very presence of these soldiers sparked insurgency among the populace -- who's fighters were inseparable and indistinguishable from the very citizenry that the soldiers sought to protect. Much of the opposition in the Korengal was targeted at the paving of the lone road into the valley -- a project designed to facilitate the integration of the valley into that Afghan nation.

In the first day of the project, security on the road was attacked, their guns taken, and the contractor tasked with the road work driven out -- never to return.

The lesson?

COIN theory must be fungible. There is no silver-bullet. There is no cookie cutter theory. There is no Clausewitz of COIN. The difference between a success and an epic COIN fail lies in the contextual understanding of the commanders who plan and implement these operations.

When we essentialize counter-insurgency to its most basic facets -- Clear, Hold, Build, and Transfer, it is temping to view it as a universally applicable strategy. But the devil lives in the details.

Unfortunately, not only the enemy gets a vote -- the populace in "held" regions does as well.

And so, this week, 28 year old Capt. Moretti walked hand-in-hand (as is custom among friends in the valley) with Shamshir Khan, a local elder in the valley, in preparation for the departure of US Troops.

Again, from the Washington Post:

"I hope that when I am gone, you will do what is best for your valley and the villagers," an almost wistful Moretti said.

"I want you to travel safely to your home, to your family," the 86-year-old elder replied.

And so began the strategic retreat from the Korengal Valley. The coming months will tell whether the valley will become an insurgent highway from Pashtun areas of Pakistan into the Afghan theater of operations -- but there is a possibility that those Talibs seeking to enter the Korengal will be met with the same resistance that faced the US forces there.

Whatever the outcome, the Korengal Operation stands as one of the most important referendum on the importance of context in COIN. Much has been made on nation-wide COIN planning, even more on "province wide COIN implementation". Korengal shows us that local contextual understanding supersedes any of these.

The sole question I have, unfortunately, cannot be answered yet. Is the goal in leaving Korengal to alleviate the security crisis there by removing its causality, or have commanders simply decided that the valley is lost -- and are repositioning their troops to bottle the valley, seeking to continue to fight for space between the insurgents of the valley and the citizenry of greater Afghanistan?

I'm not sure which answer I want to hear.

Time will tell.