THE BLOG

Korangal, and Karzai

The U.S. military's recent decision to abandon the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan evoked still more haunting comparisons to the U.S. experience in Vietnam, where bloody battles were fought for remote outposts and hilltops that were abandoned the next day, or the next month. Think of Khe Sanh. Think of Dak to, Hamburger Hill, Ia Drang. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces had fought in the Korengal Valley for five years, engaging in countless firefights, losing at least forty soldiers, and when the decision to pull out was announced the questions began. Why had the U.S. staked so much on a remote, thinly-populated valley in the first place? And what do you tell the soldiers who fought there, and the families of those who died there?

Sebastian Junger's op-ed piece in the April 21, 2010 New York Times takes on these questions in a very thoughtful manner. Junger spent a lot of months embedded with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne at a scruffy outpost that had been named Restrepo after a popular medic, Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action there in 2007. Junger saw, heard and felt the visceral reactions of the soldiers as they tried to come to terms with the pullout. What value did the commanders place on their sacrifices, and on the endless hardships they had endured in that valley? Was it all for nothing? It might seem so. But Junger raises a couple of important points to consider. One, that sending troops into Korengal seemed like a good idea at the time; and Two, war is a fluid and shape-shifting endeavor.

In 2005 a four-man Navy Seal Team was ambushed on a mountaintop overlooking the valley. Three of the Seals were killed, and the insurgents shot down a rescue helicopter killing sixteen more commandos. That led to the larger U.S. presence in the valley, and the rationale seemed sound: control of the Korengal would check the flow of militants into the more strategically important Pech River Valley to the north. But inevitably, in virtually any war and especially in a counterinsurgency, when one route is blocked the enemy finds another. And while on the surface the Korangal pullout suggests that the original decision was a mistake, that might be far from true. As Junger notes, no one knows what might have happened if the Americans had not established their five-year presence in the valley. An entire province might now be under the control of the militants. No matter how valiantly soldiers fight for a chunk of real estate, the shifting tides of war almost always require that those soldiers be moved sooner or later to fight where they are needed more.

Meanwhile in Kabul and other capitals, the head-shaking continues over President Hamid Karzai's behavior, including his emotional anti-West outbursts and threats to join the Taliban. There have been whispers of mental breakdowns and drug abuse - the latter not a whisper but spoken right out loud by former UN Envoy Peter Galbraith, who also seems prone to outbursts (Galbraith was fired by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after accusing the UN of participating in a coverup of fraud in last summer's presidential election in Afghanistan). I am reliably informed that neither rumor is true -- no breakdown, no drugs. The much more likely cause of Karzai's seemingly irrational behavior is his long-simmering frustration over his presidential impotence - since the day he was first appointed his ability to govern has been limited by the U.S and other Western powers who call the shots in Afghanistan. As Martine van Bijlert notes on the Afghan Analysts Network, Karzai's outbursts are signals

to the Parliament that he is seriously upset and that they need to mend their ways; to the international actors, that he really minds that they keep meddling in his affairs; to the population that he is their president and that he has a mind of his own; and to the insurgency that he is closer to them than they think.

In this space I have expressed my own doubts about Karzai's ability to lead and govern Afghanistan. But when people like Galbraith and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eichenberry say that Karzai is "not a good strategic partner," perhaps they should look in the mirror and ask if they have been good strategic partners for Karzai. He was hand-picked by the U.S. to lead Afghanistan but never given sovereign power, and has been hung out to dry more times than I can count.