U.S. Pulls Out of Afghan's 'Valley of Death'

Control of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley no longer a U.S. priority.

April 14, 2010, 11:07 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 14, 2010 -- The beautiful, cedar-lined Korengal Valley has never been successfully occupied by a foreign force or even controlled by a central government, but the United States has spent five years fighting ferociously in the remote eastern Afghan gorge, only six miles long and two miles wide.

Forty-two service men died in the valley where, at one point, nearly a fifth of all the fighting in Afghanistan took place. Countless articles and television reports -- many which won awards -- focused on how difficult the warfare was in the area, dubbed by troops "The Valley of Death." Even a video game featuring a Korengal firebase saw more than $300 million in sales the first day it was released.

But today the United States announced it is giving up on the Korengal Valley, moving the 130 or so troops stationed there to more populated centers. It is an admission that the valley, even though it was used as a supply route for insurgents, was never the right priority for U.S. troops fighting a counterinsurgency, and that the American presence itself was part of the problem.

"We're not living in their homes, but we're living in their valley," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, told a small group of reporters last week during a visit to the valley. "There was probably much more fighting here than there would have been" if U.S. troops had never come, he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"I care deeply about everyone who's been hurt here. But I can't do anything about that. I can do something about people hurt in the future."

McChrystal has made protecting the population centers central to his strategy in Afghanistan since arriving last spring, and the Korengal simply did not fit into that. Only 4,500 people live there and they largely stuck to themselves, speaking their own dialect of Pashto, focusing on their timber trade and never participating in national politics.

And so with few resources in the area -- despite a threefold increase in American troops in Afghanistan -- McChrystal and his team have decided to close down seven small, remote firebases in and around the valley, so more troops could be spent protecting cities, farming centers, and transportation routes.

U.S. Presence Became an "Irritant"

"We became an irritant. And our presence became an irritant. We created -- at least partially -- an economic insurgency. People earned money to fight us," says Major T.G. Taylor, the chief public affairs officer in the area. "The lack of our presence will encourage Korengalis to interact with their government" -- something that largely has not happened in the five years of American presence.

U.S. commanders insist they will maintain the ability to respond quickly to an urgent need in the Korengal Valley, or to any of the districts they have left in the last few months. But closing the base will free up resources -- both troops and helicopters -- for more important missions, U.S. military officials say.

The pullout was hinted at as early as last fall, when a senior NATO commander told ABC News the Korengal would "likely" be on the list of bases closed by commanders in eastern Afghanistan.

But the Korengal was much better known than any of the other outposts that have been closed, in part because of the resources dedicated to it and how violent the fight there was -- from the very first day.

On June 28, 2005, when Navy Seals tried to capture the valley's Taliban commander, they were quickly attacked by as many as 150 fighters. A helicopter sent to rescue them was shot down, and 19 U.S. forces died -- one of the single worst days of the war.

A month and a half later, Marines tried and failed to capture the commander again. Ten marines were wounded in the firefight.

American troops were finally able to establish Korengal Outpost in April, 2006 in an abandoned lumber yard. Today, the owner of the mill, Haji Matin, is now one of the main insurgent leaders in the valley.

"The enemy came because of the bases," says Fazlullah Wahidi, the governor of Kunar province, where Korengal is located. He called the pullout "a very good thing" and "the wish of the people."

The pullout was conducted over the last few weeks with 84 helicopter runs -- every one at night, when insurgents are less able to shoot helicopters down.

Korengal's Media Attention

The fighting was so intense, one soldier was photographed shooting in his boxer shorts and flip-flops, having rushed from his bunk to help defend the base from an attack. Specialist Zachary Boyd joked that he may lose his job because of the photograph, which won photographer David Guttenfelder a World Press Photo award.

Vanity Fair published more than 14,000 words about the valley. The writer, Sebastian Junger, and the photographer, Tim Hetherington, also filed a 20-minute story for ABC's Nightline and won an Alfred E. DuPont award, one of television's most prestigious.

The media attention extended to "Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare" a video game that featured a Korengal firebases. The game sold 4.7 million copies in 24 hours -- one of the most successful entertainment releases ever, regardless of genre.

But all that attention was, in some ways, outsized. U.S. commanders now say the valley never was as important as it seemed, and despite the loss of life, McChrystal and his team clearly wanted it closed.

"The thing is that in a counterinsurgency strategy, it's about the population. And in the Korengal valley, there is no population center," says Taylor.

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