The Afghan solution lies in the valley
By Brian M Downing
Last week, the United States withdrew a small contingent of troops from the
Korengal Valley in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar. The valley had been
the scene of continuous skirmishes and the occasional sizable engagement, but
no decisive battle took place.
The withdrawal was announced a few months back and it is seen as a reallocation
of troops away from inconclusive attrition and toward the more promising
counter-insurgency operations going on in Helmand and about to be launched in
Kandahar, both in the Taliban heartland of the south, both thought to be the
key to the unfolding of the war over the next year or so.
The valley should not be considered an irrelevant part of the country now.
Indeed, events there might be more important than those in the south. The
American withdrawal affords the
opportunity to examine the nature of the insurgency and determine the impact of
the presence of foreign troops - and the impact of their departure as well.
The Korengal area also presents a test case to determine the political
adroitness of President Hamid Karzai. He has been dressed down by the US in
recent weeks and faces the beginning of the US exit in a little more than a
year. The grisly death of his predecessor, Mohammad Najibullah, in 1996 at the
hands of the Taliban must run through his mind more than occasionally.
The departure of foreign troops
One of the principal bases of the insurgency, in Kunar and elsewhere, is the
presence of foreign forces, who in time appear as another wave of interlopers.
This appears paradoxical but the theme of opposition to foreign presence -
Persian, British, Russian - runs throughout Afghan history.
United States troops have been present for over eight years now and the promise
of political and economic developments has given way to skepticism and
resentment, at least where it has not become overt opposition. American and
other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces are wearing out whatever
welcome they could once lay claim to. Other sources of conflict abound.
Western soldiers - young, boastful and parochial - will almost inevitably
conflict with people of a traditional society long governed by elders and
custom. Engagements with insurgents bring inadvertent death and destruction,
resulting in greater support for the insurgency. Locals join guerrilla bands
not out of ideology or religious fervor, but out of the desire to expel those
deemed as having brought war into their district.
The exit of US troops from the Korengal Valley will undermine this basis of
insurgent support there, with portentous implications. Similar dynamics played
out in the late 1980s as Soviet troops withdrew from several provinces before
completely leaving the country in 1989. The Soviet exit led not to expansive
safe havens for the mujahideen but to widespread desertions from the mujahideen
ranks. Most fighters served to expel the foreigners and, having done that, they
went home in numbers.
Mujahideen leaders, having lost troops but also the unity stemming from a
common enemy, turned on each other. Locals saw the insurgents as unruly
nuisances who offered them nothing. Notables, seeking to restore a measure of
tranquility once the Soviets had left, worked with the Najibullah government
and helped to forge pacts between insurgent leaders and the central government.
Former fighters chose to serve in newly formed government militias and they
used their contacts to urge other mujahideen to come over.
These policies and developments have obvious parallels to present-day ambitions
in Washington and Kabul alike vis-a-vis the Taliban. This "national
reconciliation" program was surprisingly successful until the Soviet Union
collapsed, subsidies dried up, and Kabul fell to the mujahideen in 1992. Its
lessons may be critical today - paradoxical and galling though they may be in
The Karzai government
Another principal base of the insurgency is the Kabul governmentís failure to
forge effective ties with local power holders. Thus far Karzaiís efforts have
been more attuned to building his power than respecting locals. The Korengal
Valley provides the opportunity for Karzai to win back the region - and perhaps
as importantly, to win back support from NATO and its publics.
The government must parley with locals - the tribal elders and also other
figures who have attained prominence during the tumult of the previous 30 years
of continuous war. The government can present the Taliban as the only remaining
outsiders - ones who offer little in the way of resources and development.
Najibullah provided the template during the Soviet period and Karzaiís
benefactors in Washington have deeper pockets than his predecessorís
benefactors in Moscow did.
Karzai has built up his sagging prestige in the countryside by harshly
criticizing the US - for killing large numbers of civilians through the use of
firepower, which is quite understandable, and for meddling in the recent
election, which inasmuch as Karzai was responsible for massive fraud, is quite
absurd. No matter - both assertions will serve him in rallying popular support.
Americans would do well to look past this irksome behavior and ask if it will
help effect an exit from a long and unpromising war.
Karzai would do well to bear in mind that Washington's patience is limited.
President Barack Obama has announced that US troops will begin to leave
Afghanistan and though ambiguity abounds vis-a-vis the pace and end point of
the withdrawal, Karzai must build support or face the prospect of a graceless
flight from his country or worse, sharing the grisly fate of his Soviet-backed
The prospect of a US exit should spur Karzai to be more judicious and
accommodating with local notables and chieftains. It will be remembered that
the greatest period of South Vietnamese reform came not when president Lyndon B
Johnson was berating his counterpart in Saigon, but when president Richard
Nixon was withdrawing a hundred thousand troops a year. Political and social
reforms were forthcoming, though they were not sufficient to prevent a North
Greater support from the Pashtun south and east will strengthen Karzaiís
position in ongoing dialogs with Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami insurgent leaders.
Presently, insurgents are having their way, inflicting casualties and
negotiating alliances. Winning back parts of Kunar and other provinces will be
helpful in getting local commanders to switch over to Kabul and in convincing
insurgent leaders to accept a settlement well short of seizing Kabul and
controlling the whole country.
More tact from Kabul will also increase its support from regional powers that
oppose a Taliban return to the heart of Central Asia. Iran, India, Russia,
China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan want to see a competent state in Kabul with
which they can work to control the rise of militancy in Central Asia, from
Uzbekistan to western China.
Success in the Korengal Valley and elsewhere will provide valuable lessons for
countering the insurgency elsewhere and setting the stage for a negotiated
settlement. Determining the roles of Western forces in causing the insurgency
and of withdrawing them in easing the insurgency will be especially important.
The Kabul government's failure to win support in the valley will confirm the
widespread view in the American public that Karzai is an unworthy ally in a
distant war with increasingly dubious relevance to its national security. The
US has abandoned the Korengal Valley; Afghans must now win it back.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and the author of
The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War
and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at