In the last six months two combat bases have been abandoned by the American military in the far north-eastern reaches of Nuristan and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan. Why they were abandoned, and what has happened since, shows where this war may be heading. Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan, which had been manned by 60 soldiers, was closed down first. It had been under constant mortar and rocket fire for months before it was ambushed by 300 insurgents on a morning in October. The base was set in a ravine in Kamdesh district surrounded by high ground, which meant it was at a tactical disadvantage despite an elevated observation post nearby.
Eight soldiers were killed and 22 wounded in the attack. The next morning, the Americans left, but the base had been due to close anyway because the US military did not believe it had any tactical or strategic value. A second base in the Korengal valley next door in Kunar province was evacuated in April. The valley is 10 kilometres long but the Americans only managed to hold about half of it since they opened their outpost in 2005. It is a corridor for insurgents, possibly al Qa'eda, smuggling arms and fighters across the border from Pakistan. Residents were paid to turn a blind eye. In the last five years, 40 US soldiers have been killed in the valley and many more wounded.
Both decisions have been controversial. For some, it was evidence the Americans are abandoning the country and declaring defeat. But there are no easy answers as America struggles to shape an Afghan counterinsurgency strategy which is supposed to focus on protecting and helping the population. In Kamdesh and Korengal, the Americans were doing neither. Nuristan is so removed from the rest of the country that when an Afghan official visited the province in January, the residents of one district had never heard of Afghanistan. They thought Nuristan was its own country and the valleys were provinces.
The region has had virtually no contact with Kabul since the Soviet invasion in 1979. There is a generation of Nuristanis whose only experience with the outside world was the Soviets, so when the Americans established a base in 2006 it seemed like a continuation of a foreign, non-Muslim invasion. There was no opportunity to protect or help the residents because the Americans were not wanted. Insurgents took advantage of this anger and for years the base was under fire from the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami, an Islamist paramilitary group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister.
Korengal, about 130 kilometres to the south in Kunar province, poses similar problems. The valley is remote and exotic even by Afghan standards. Korengalis speak a language known only to their valley and just a century ago practised paganism. US forces stepped on the proverbial hornet's nest by establishing a base on the site of a timber mill which was important to the local economy. The arrival of the Americans shut down the mill.
There was no chance of implementing a population protection strategy because insurgents provided residents with money and weapons. Fighting that killed Afghans worsened sentiment against US forces until the main purpose of the base was self-defence. It became a bloody stalemate. The army decided to shut down the post and a deal was struck with tribal elders. The Americans said they would leave if the tribe promised not to attack during the evacuation. Not a shot was fired.
The worry is that the valley will again become a crossroads for fighters and weapons smuggled from Peshawar. But something interesting has happened. In the last few weeks, the Korengali leadership has reached out to the central government's representatives in Kunar's capital. The Americans are cautious but hopeful. In the case of Kamdesh, there is even more excitement. One local leader who previously fought against the Americans has urged residents to turn against the Taliban. He has also agreed to allow the Afghan border police to set up a post. In the near future, he is expected to openly declare his support for the Kabul government. This could be an opportunity to bring the valley into Kabul's orbit, if not control, for the first time since the Russian invasion.
The province of Nuristan is still very violent. The Americans appear to be relying on drone strikes and night operations, but a border police post could allow Afghan authorities to establish a security toehold. What lessons, then, can be extrapolated from Kamdesh and Korengal? Afghanistan is a fractured state. The Americans may decide that with limited resources, they will concentrate efforts on villages and cities where their help is welcomed by the local population.
What works in Kamdesh and Korengal will not necessarily apply to Kandahar, where a massive military operation is imminent this summer. Nato forces will have to make decisions town by town, district by district. But at least there maybe a recognition that a strategy of one policy fits all does not apply. firstname.lastname@example.org Hamida Ghafour is embedded with the US army's 4th Infantry Division in eastern Afghanistan