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Do We Need Isolated Outposts in Afghanistan?

C.J. Chivers, the former Marine turned New York Times-man, continues his gripping series of reports from the Korangal Valley of northeast Afghanistan. Previously he had chronicled a successful ambush of a Taliban column carried out by an American platoon. In the latest installment, he reports on the Taliban ambushing the Americans. The U.S. unit, as usual, gets the upper hand in the fight thanks to its ability to call in mortar and air strikes but, unfortunately, a soldier dies in the initial ambush.

The article has an up-close-and-personal feel that can only be achieved by going in harm’s way. Reading the article, it is impossible not to feel admiration, even awe, for the valor and skill of the men involved — not only the soldiers from Company B of the First Battalion, 26th Infantry, but also the two Times-men, Chivers and photographer Tyler Hicks. But it is also hard to avoid wondering whether it’s worth putting their lives on the line for the mission they have been given.

I don’t mean that I doubt whether Afghanistan is worth fighting for. I believe winning the war there has to be a major priority. But I am not sure that having American outposts in the isolated Korangal Valley
contributes much to our ultimate success — at least not enough to justify the considerable cost to our troops. (Chivers notes that one platoon has already lost four men in the past nine months. That’s
perhaps 10% of the entire platoon.)

As Chivers notes, the fight in the Korangal is fairly isolated from the major battle against the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and related Islamist insurgent groups that will determine the success
or failure of our war effort:

Relatively few Arabs or foreigners come here, the company’s officers say. But the Korangalis, a hardened and isolated people with their own language, have managed to lock the American Army into a bloody standoff for a small space for more than three years.

The Korangalis have fought, the officers say, in part because they support the Taliban and in part because they are loggers and the Afghan government banned almost all timber cutting, putting local men out of work.

A number of officers I talked with on my last visit to Afghanistan suggested it would make sense to pull the isolated American combat outposts out of the Korangal and a few other areas. They have become
such bullet-magnets that they have to devote most of their resources to defending themselves and cannot generate much combat power on a regular basis “outside the wire.” Afghanistan has much more vital terrain for fighting — especially areas with high population density, high concentration of insurgents, or both. The Korangal Valley is neither. It does, however, have plenty of backward, xenophobic residents who will fire on any outsider who comes their way — and they regard Afghans who live a few valleys over as outsiders.

Fighting for the future of Afghanistan doesn’t have to mean fighting for every inch of the country. Commanders on the ground have to make difficult calculations and trade-offs that may result in pulling back some outposts while expanding others.


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