Last fall, the U.S. military decided to withdraw forces from remote districts in eastern Afghanistan, particularly in the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, where isolated outposts were routinely attacked by large forces made up of the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as Chechen and Central and South Asian terror groups. Two combat outposts in Nuristan were nearly overrun.
So U.S. commanders, citing the new counterinsurgency strategy that calls for securing population centers at the expense of rural areas, decided to pull out, essentially ceding the regions to the Taliban and providing them with major propaganda coups. These withdrawals, accompanied by President Obama's announcement of a deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops starting in July 2011, sent the wrong message to the Afghan people as well as the Taliban. Here are some choice quotes from military officers I spoke to in April, after the U.S. pulled out of bases in the Korengal Valley in Kunar and the Taliban gloated in a propaganda video released on Al Jazeera:
"There is truth that these outposts are hard to defend and are tough on resources, tough to resuppply," a senior military officer said. "And the return in terms of counterinsurgency success may be low, as we're not winning many people over. But look at what we have signaled to the Afghan people: we will leave you if it becomes too difficult."
"We are giving the Taliban propaganda on a silver platter," another officer said. "Note how Al Jazeera was on tap for this pullout. We can dismiss this all we want, but the reality is this is another Taliban propaganda coup. The message may be lost on those in ISAF but it isn't lost on the Afghan people, many whom already think we have one foot out the door."
“We tell ourselves much of this battle is a battle for perceptions, yet we often refuse to manage those perceptions,” the officer continued. “We are having it handed to us when it comes to the information war, it is that simple.”
Another officer said the withdrawals from Nuristan and Kunar can hinder efforts to sell an operation to Afghans in Kandahar.
"We're going to them to tell them we're here to protect them, but they can see we haven't kept our promises in the east," the officer said. "And then we wonder why they sit on the fence."
But this weekend, it seems that decision to cede the remote districts to the Taliban may have been reversed. A combined U.S. Army and Afghan force launched a battalion-sized (about 700 men) air assault on the district of Marawara in Kunar, which is directly on the border with Pakistan. The Taliban were in control of this isolated district. After two days of heavy fighting, the combined U.S. and Afghan assault force racked up the kills in Marawara; more than 150 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were said to have been killed while two U.S. soldiers and one Afghan soldier were killed.
I've yet to find out if other districts in Kunar and Nuristan will be subject to similar offensives. Given that many of these districts serve as safe havens for the Taliban and al Qaeda to launch attacks into the heart of Afghanistan, it seems like a good idea for the U.S. Army to take them back.