It was an oddly honest yet perplexing admission. If US troops were the reason for the fighting, our counterinsurgency strategy made no sense in the first place. But in 2005, the Korengal villagers hadn’t been innately hostile. They wanted roads, schools and access to local markets. When the outposts were built, the insurgents climbed into the surrounding hills and shot at the Americans, who employed heavier and heavier firepower in response. The return fire eroded the tribal good will toward the Americans, while Islamist zealots drove home the message that jihad was necessary to drive out the infidel invaders.
“Everybody hates them (the Americans),” Haji Nizamuddin, a Korengali elder said. “They shoot at people, they raid our houses and kill our women and children… our tribes can protect us against the insurgents.”
The fighting did subside once the Americans announced that they were leaving. Compared to 22 fatalities in 2006-2009 among the three companies in the Korengal, the last US company to leave in 2010 lost one solider killed, "In this place, with all its violent history,” the company commander said, “that is our proudest achievement."
When avoiding casualties is the achievement, it is time to leave. The loss of one soldier in a company was far below the average in Afghanistan. There comes that moment, though, when you don’t want to fight anymore. The troop-to-population ratio and the logistics for air support in the Korengal were too onerous. The operational plan – small units in outposts – did not fit the terrain. The enemies from the local tribes always held the high ground and proved too tough to dislodge. The Taliban claimed victory on the global stage, triumphantly leading an al Jazeera television crew on a tour of the abandoned Korengal outpost.
In 2010, the writer Sebastin Junger produced a film called Restrepo, featuring a platoon defending a Korengal outpost. The film was acclaimed as an apolitical depiction of soldiers. The lack of a strategic rationale for defending the outpost added poignancy to the film.
The film critic, Andre O’Heir, wrote a scathing critique: “The only way to defend the entirely pointless and destructive campaign these men waged in the Korengal is to say that sending young men around the world to experience that drug high -- the high of shooting, and killing, and possibly dying, as about 50 Americans did in that valley -- in the name of vague notions about honor and patriotism and sacrifice is a good thing in itself. Because they sure as hell didn't accomplish anything else.”
What the film critic dubbed “vague notions about honor and patriotism” is the lifeblood of any great nation. It is an elitist conceit to believe that soldiers join the military for a “drug high” or because they lacked job opportunities. A majority of enlisted soldiers come from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. 98% graduate from high school or have an equivalency degree. Officers largely come from neighborhoods in the top one-fifth of household incomes. Our troops didn’t volunteer to get a thrill or a job; they had better opportunities.
Yes, soldiers fight for their comrades. In isolated outposts like the Korgengal, as the historian Gerald Linderman had noted about the Civil War, “fellowship becomes almost a religion… in the camaraderie of misery.” But the reason most grunts volunteer to serve – before they ever meet their comrades – is out of a desire to test themselves and to serve as our guardians (although they won’t admit it.) After a hundred patrols, they know the differences between theory and reality. None remain naïve, some become cynical and most return to the States grateful for what we have and doubtful about how much we change others.
Guarding the mountain flanks in order to provide security for the population in the valley was not a drug high. It was a logical operation. The flaw lay in hoping that the tribes would stand up against the fierce jihadists.
By the time the Korengal was abandoned in 2010, the press had lost interest in the war as old news. According to a Gallup poll, the war did not rank among the top ten problems listed by the public. The public was disinterested and confused, because both the strategy and the progress in the war were confusing. In itself, the mission in the Korengal was not thoughtless or careless. The problem was that terrain, language, religion and 2,000 years of tribal traditions favored the local Islamists.
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