Why They Fail – The Quintessence Of The Korengal Valley Campaign

DISPATCHES FROM MOON OF ALABAMA, BY “B”

HELP ENLIGHTEN YOUR FELLOWS. BE SURE TO PASS THIS ON. SURVIVAL DEPENDS ON IT.

A new excerpt from a book by C.J. Chivers, a former U.S. infantry captain and New York Times war correspondent, tells the story of a young man from New York City who joined the U.S. army and was sent to the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. While the man, one Robert Soto, makes it out alive, several of his comrades and many Afghans die during his time in Afghanistan to no avail.

The piece includes remarkably strong words about the strategic (in)abilities of U.S. politicians, high ranking officers and pundits:

On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command.Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.

That description is right but it does not touch the underlying causes. The story of the attempted U.S. occupation of the Korengal valley,  which Chivers again describes, has been the theme of several books and movies. It demonstrates the futility of fighting a population that does not welcome occupiers. But most of the authors, including Chivers, get one fact wrong. The war with the people of the Korengal valley was started out of sheer stupidity and ignorance.

The U.S. population and their ‘leaders’ simply know too little about the world to prevail in an international military campaign. They lack curiosity. The origin of the Korengal failure is a good example for that.

The main military outpost in the valley was built on a former sawmill. Chivers writes:

On a social level, it could not have been much worse. It was an unforced error of occupation, a set of foreign military bunkers built on the grounds of a sawmill and lumber yard formerly operated by Haji Mateen, a local timber baron. The American foothold put some of the valley’s toughest men out of work, the same Afghans who knew the mountain trails. Haji Mateen now commanded many of the valley’s fighters, under the banner of the Taliban.

Unfortunately Chivers does not explain why the saw mill was closed. Ten years ago a piece by Elizabeth Rubin touched on this:

As the Afghans tell the story, from the moment the Americans arrived in 2001, the Pech Valley timber lords and warlords had their ear. Early on, they led the Americans to drop bombs on the mansion of their biggest rival — Haji Matin. The air strikes killed several members of his family, according to local residents, and the Americans arrested others and sent them to the prison at Bagram Air Base. The Pech Valley fighters working alongside the Americans then pillaged the mansion. And that was that. Haji Matin, already deeply religious, became ideological and joined with Abu Ikhlas, a local Arab linked to the foreign jihadis.

Years before October 2004, before regular U.S. soldiers came into the Korengal valley, U.S. special forces combed through the region looking for ‘al-Qaeda’. They made friends with a timber baron in Pech valley, a Pashtun of the Safi tribe, who claimed that his main competitor in the (illegal) timber trade who lived in the nearby Korengal river valley was a Taliban and ‘al-Qaeda’. That was not true. Haji Matin was a member of a Nuristani tribe that spoke Pashai. These were a distinct people with their own language who were and are traditional hostile to any centralized government (pdf), even to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.


Taliban fighters: to Americans they might as well come from another planet. The culture gap, reinforced by massive ignorance and arrogant ethnocentrism, is an insurmountable canyon.

The U.S. special forces lacked any knowledge of the local society. But even worse was that they lacked the curiosity to research and investigate the social terrain. They simply trusted their new ‘friend’, the smooth talking Pashtun timber baron, and called in jets to destroy his competitor’s sawmill and home. This started a local war of attrition which defeated the U.S. military. In 2010 the U.S. military,  having achieved nothing, retreated from Korengal. (The sawmill episode was described in detail in a 2005(?) blog post by a former special forces soldier who took part in it. It since seems to have been removed from the web.)

Back to Chivers’ otherwise well written piece. He looks at the results two recent (and ongoing) U.S. wars:

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. 

Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.

The wars fail because they have no reasonable strategic aim or achievable purpose. They are planned by incompetent people. The most recent Pentagon ideas for the U.S. war on Afghanistan depend on less restricted bombing rules. Yesterday one predictable and self defeating  consequence was again visible:

An American airstrike killed at least a dozen Afghan security forces during intense fighting with the Taliban near the Afghan capital, officials said Tuesday. 

Shamshad Larawi, a spokesman for the governor, said that American airstrikes had been called in for support, but that because of a misunderstanding, the planes mistakenly targeted an Afghan police outpost. 

Haji Abdul Satar, a tribal elder from Azra, said he counted 19 dead, among them 17 Afghan police officers and pro-government militia members and two civilians.

In the first six months of this year, United States forces dropped nearly 3,000 bombs across Afghanistan, nearly double the number for the same period last year and more than five times the number for the first half of 2016. … Civilian casualties from aerial bombardments have increased considerably as a result, the United Nations says.

One argument made by the Pentagon generals when they pushed Trump to allow more airstrikes was that these would cripple the Taliban’s alleged opium trade and its financial resources. But, as the Wall Street Journal reports, that plan, like all others before it, did not work at all:

Nine months of targeted airstrikes on opium production sites across Afghanistan have failed to put a significant dent in the illegal drug trade that provides the Taliban with hundreds of millions of dollars, according to figures provided by the U.S. military.

So far, the air campaign has wiped out about $46 million in Taliban revenue, less than a quarter of the money the U.S. estimates the insurgents get from the illegal drug trade. U.S. military officials estimate the drug trade provides the Taliban with 60% of its revenue.

Poppy production hit record highs in Afghanistan last year, where they are the country’s largest cash crop, valued at between $1.5 billion and $3 billion.

More than 200 airstrikes on “drug-related targets” have hardly made a dent in the Taliban’s war chest. The military war planners again failed.

At the end of the Chivers piece its protagonist, Robert Soto, rightfully vents about the unaccountability of such military ‘leaders’:

Still he wondered: Was there no accountability for the senior officer class? The war was turning 17, and the services and the Pentagon seemed to have been given passes on all the failures and the drift. Even if the Taliban were to sign a peace deal tomorrow, there would be no rousing sense of victory, no parade. In Iraq, the Islamic State metastasized in the wreckage of the war to spread terror around the world. The human costs were past counting, and the whitewash was both institutional and personal, extended to one general after another, including many of the same officers whose plans and orders had either fizzled or failed to create lasting success, and yet who kept risingSoto watched some of them as they were revered and celebrated in Washington and by members of the press, even after past plans were discredited and enemies retrenched.

Since World War II, during which the Soviets, not the U.S., defeated the Nazis, the U.S. won no war. The only exception is the turkey shooting of the first Gulf war. But even that war failed in its larger political aim of dethroning Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. population and their ‘leaders’ simply know too little about the world to prevail in an international military campaign. They lack curiosity. The origin of the Korengal failure is a good example for that.

U.S. wars are rackets, run on the back of lowly soldiers and foreign civil populations. They enrich a few at the cost of everyone else.

Wars should not be ‘a presumed government action’, but the last resort to defend one’s country. We should do our utmost to end all of them.

Posted by b on August 8, 2018 at 04:00 PM | Permalink.


About the Author
“b” is the nom de guerre of Moon of Alabama’s founding editor.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 ALL CAPTIONS AND PULL QUOTES BY THE EDITORS NOT THE AUTHORS

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