U.S. Forces Leave Afghanistan's Korengal Valley

Five years after entering what would be one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Afghanistan, U.S. troops have pulled out of the Korengal Valley. Reporter Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post talks to Steve Inskeep about the Korengal Valley campaign.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The U.S. military is leaving one of the bloodier battlegrounds in Afghanistan. Five years after trying to take control of the Korengal Valley, American forces are leaving. Their commander thought they were just stirring up resistance in that region along the border with Pakistan.

We're going to talk through some of the questions raised by this with Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. He was just in the Korengal Valley with U.S. troops as they left. He's still in Afghanistan. He's on the phone.

Greg, welcome back to the program.

Mr. GREG JAFFE (Journalist, Washington Post): Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: What is the Korengal Valley like?

Mr. JAFFE: You know, it's one of the strangest places I've ever been, and I think it's even strange by sort of Afghanistan's standards. It's exceptionally remote. You know, a lot of villagers there have never left the valley in their entire lives. They speak Pashto, which is a common language here in Afghanistan, but their native tongue is Korengali, which is a language, believe it or not, that they only speak in that valley, and it really speaks to the isolation of that place.

INSKEEP: Well, why did the U.S. military go in some years ago to that valley, and why would they be leaving now?

Mr. JAFFE: Well, I mean, I think they went in because they thought it was a haven for Pakistani, Arab, Chechen fighters. The idea was that they were going to go in there and essentially flush them out - the Korengal on the border there with Pakistan, so it was a haven and a potential infiltration route(ph).

INSKEEP: Okay, so why leave?

Mr. JAFFE: Their reasoning for leaving was that it's an isolated area. They went in to get some - what they thought were Afghan and Taliban folks. I think they ended up creating a blood feud with the locals, who are very suspicious of outsiders. So, you know, counter-insurgency doctrine says that you want to protect the people, you want to clear insurgents out. I mean, here, the people didn't want American protection. They wanted to be left alone. And you couldn't separate them from the insurgents because they were the insurgents. I mean, it was a valley uprising.

INSKEEP: Meaning that the United States, rather than eliminating enemies, was creating them.

Mr. JAFFE: That's right. Certainly, in that valley, that was the case.

INSKEEP: Does this suggest a different way of thinking about Afghanistan, Greg Jaffe, that some tribes, if left alone, aren't really seen as much of a treat?

Mr. JAFFE: Yeah. I think that's the gamble here. I mean, the question is: Are these folks in the Korengal a threat or not? And I think the question will be does violence in this valley come of out of the valley, and do they start attacking U.S. troops in areas that matter more to U.S. interests in Afghanistan?

You know, do they come into bigger cities and launch attacks? Previous units thought that that's what was happening and that's why they needed to be in there. The current thought is that these folks aren't going to leave the valley.

INSKEEP: You know, this raises another question, Greg Jaffe, because you were there in Kunar Province. If you look at a map, it's on the border with Pakistan. And just a weeks ago, Pakistani forces declared that they had cleared out some of the Pashtun tribal areas on their side of the border, finally, and there was a there brigadier there, Zafar Ul-Haq, who complained that a couple of Taliban leaders were fleeing across the border and finding safe havens on the Afghan side, and Americans weren't doing much. Let's listen.

Brigadier ZAFAR UL-HAQ (Pakistani Army): They have their sanctuaries in Afghanistan. We have credible information that they have their bases there, even they are being trained there. They have their camps in the garb of refugee camps. We do have American allied forces on the other side, and we keep telling them that this is the situation, but nothing much is being done there, so that is the problem.

INSKEEP: This is an amazing mirror image of what I hear when I talk to some American military officers, because they will say we're doing everything we can on the Afghan side, and these people just flee across to Pakistan. You're saying exactly the opposite.

Brigadier UL-HAQ: Exactly. These miscreants, they can go into Afghanistan and come back.

INSKEEP: And Greg Jaffe, this Pakistani brigadier complained there were very few Americans really watching that border area. Could it be in light of this latest pullout that he's right?

Mr. JAFFE: I mean, there are absolutely very few Americans watching that border. I think the Americans have concluded that it's just too hard. They simply don't have enough troops to position them on the border and to kind of focus on the internal insurgency within Afghanistan and protect the people and build governance, so they had to make a choice. And I think the choice was we can't stop infiltration across this border, and we're not going to try.

INSKEEP: Well, does that mean if neither the Pakistanis nor the Americans can fully control that area that insurgents can always move?

Mr. JAFFE: They certainly can move across the border into those sort of rural havens. I think the American hope is that you can keep them bottled up in these incredibly isolated places like the Korengal Valley. The hope will be that when they come out of those valleys and into the villages when the Americans and the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government have a presence, that those people will be captured, they won't find a welcome there. So the idea is, you know, if they want to hang out in mountains, God bless them. Keep them away from the people.

INSKEEP: Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post. Thanks very much.

Mr. JAFFE: Thank you.

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