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Hard Lessons in Korengal

Nearly four years ago I flew in a Black Hawk helicopter to the Korengal Valley—a remote chasm in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, where I lived side by side, under near-constant fire, with American troops of the Tenth Mountain Division for nearly a week. At the time, the KOP, as it was called, was just one more obscure outpost in a war that most Americans weren’t paying much attention to. The worsening civil war in Iraq and mounting U.S. casualties there dominated the headlines; the “surge” was just around the corner.

In recent months, of course, the same KOP has been immortalized in both Sebastian Junger’s best selling War, and in the documentary he co-directed with Tim Hetherington, Restrepo. Both film and book portray the firebase as the ultimate testing ground for America’s soldiers, a place where nearly uninterupted gun and mortar fire created heroes in appalling conditions.  It’s also a place that probably merited attention back in 2006, when I visited, because the story of what went wrong there doubles as a cautionary tale for America’s wider failure in Afghanistan.

The Americans went into the Korengal in 2005 with grand aspirations: The valley was seen as the perfect spot to test the doctrine of “clear, hold and build.” The strategy–which has since been employed in Marja and other Taliban strongholds in the eastern Pashtun belt—calls for pushing out the Taliban, village by village, valley by valley, maintaining a permanent U.S. troop presence in the vacuum, and then winning over the local population by building schools, roads, and other development projects. The architect of this policy at Korengal while I was there was Captain Jim McKnight, an officer from upstate New York who radiated both manic energy and utter confidence. Central to McKnight’s strategy was locating allies among the local population to help him identify and flush out the Taliban--in effect, building a network of informants. And so McKnight and his fellow officers held meeting after meeting with Korengal’s leaders, attempting to persuade them of the material advantages of working with the Americans.

What I found most striking about the seven days that I stayed in the Korengal was McKnight’s absolute certainty that the U.S. message was getting through–despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. The local Pashtuns’ deep family and tribal ties to the insurgents, as well as the Taliban’s practice of killing those who dared exchange a few friendly words with the outsiders, provided reason enough to keep the Americans at a safe distance. I watched one group of elders listen politely to McKnight, mumble a few noncommittal words, then file out of the room, stone-faced. McKnight told me afterward, with what seemed like improbable exuberance: “They’re starting to come around. They’re saying, ‘We could give more information to help them out’ . . . It seems good.” McKnight’s own intelligence chief took a more jaundiced view, later assuring me out of his commanding officer’s earshot that the Americans “will never win these people over.”

The confidence of McKnight and many other U.S. officers was belied by more than the opaque resistance of a bunch of Afghan elders. It was manifestly clear, after just minutes on the ground, who was in control of the turf. The Black Hawk that dropped me off stayed no more than 30 seconds after depositing me on the single flat patch of ground in an otherwise vertiginous landscape. The outpost was under round the clock siege by the Taliban, who—as Restrepo brings home with terrifying clarity—hid in the surrounding mountains, firing mortar rounds and occasionally creeping close enough to pick off U.S. troops and their Afghan army confreres as they went about their daily chores. When I ventured out on foot patrols with one of the Tenth Mountain Division’s platoons, the Taliban harassed the exposed soldiers constantly with small arms fire. Our radio team picked up near constant chatter from Taliban spotters, tracking the Americans’ movements.  “They are watching us all the time,” I was told by Lt. Steve Miller, the bookish young West Point graduate who had flown in with me to the firebase to take over as a platoon leader.

We now know how the story turned out: the United States, despite a four-year effort to root out the Taliban from the Korengal, failed either to win the local population to the cause or to weaken the guerrillas. After suffering dozens of casualties and firing thousands of mortar rounds at a largely unseen enemy, the troops withdrew from the Korengal in 2010, deciding that holding onto this remote valley, a key infiltration point from nearby Pakistan, wasn’t worth the cost in human lives and treasure. Would sending in more troops to the valley have made a difference? I doubt it. In the Korengal, unlike the Sunni heartland in Iraq, the United States faced a predominantly local insurgency with deep ties to the population. Add to that a corrupt, discredited government in Kabul, a pervasive lack of faith in U.S. promises of development, and the insurgents’ thorough knowledge of the rugged landscape, and it’s no wonder that the Taliban could so easily sustain themselves.

The tragic pattern of the Korengal now appears to be playing itself out across the eastern Pashtun belt. And the irrational exuberance—and subsequent disappointments—of McKnight and his men should weigh on Gen. David Petraeus as he confronts a widening war, a skeptical population, and a well dug-in enemy.

Joshua Hammer is a Berlin-based foreign correspondent and the author of, most recently, A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place (Free Press).