Afghan forces bring peace to Pech Valley hell hole

NY Times:
The Americans arrived under cover of night, the static electricity from their helicopter blades casting halos of blue in the pitch black.

It was their first return to the Pech Valley — a rugged swath of eastern Afghanistan so violent they nicknamed it the Valley of Death — since the American military abruptly ended an offensive against the Taliban here in 2011 after taking heavy casualties.

But the Americans, from the First Battalion of the 327th Infantry, had not come back to fight. Instead, their visit this summer was a chance to witness something unthinkable two years ago: the Afghan forces they had left in charge of the valley then, and who nobody believed could hold the ground even for weeks, have not just stood — they have had an effect.

The main road leading in the Pech is now drivable, to a point, and rockets no longer rain down constantly on the base the Americans had left the Afghans. Local residents said they felt safer than they had in years.

“Man, you couldn’t walk this road without getting lit up,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Griffiths, amazed as he and about a dozen soldiers surveyed one area the day after their arrival.

No one is exactly sure how the Afghan forces have managed to make some gains that eluded the Americans for so many years in the Pech Valley. But it presents a sketch portrait of what Afghan-led security might look like in some places after the international military coalition is gone next year.

Interviews with American and Afghan officials and local residents paint the progress as an amalgam of many things: the absence of foreign troops as an irritant, the weakening of the Taliban and an improved Afghan Army. Officials also noted the beginning of de facto agreements in some areas between Afghan soldiers and militants about what is and is not off-limits — not a particularly positive sign, but still an indication of how the battle might change when it is Afghan fighting Afghan.

An aggressive campaign of American drone strikes in the Pech over the past year and a half has been instrumental, Afghans and American officials say. They assert that the strikes have devastated the insurgent networks, focusing on Qaeda leaders and their facilitators. The recent targeted killing of the Nuristan shadow governor, Dost Muhammad Khan, considered one of the top Taliban leaders in the country and a crucial asset for Al Qaeda, was a high point of the campaign.

More than American air power, with its looming expiration date next year, is in effect here, though. Analysts and officials also say that the Afghan approach to policing the area has been a strong point. While the Americans consolidated on one main base and a few outposts, the Afghans have set up more than a dozen new outposts and checkpoints farther into the valley. Their aim is focused: securing the main road that runs through the Pech through Nangalam and keeping it open for the first time in nearly 10 years..
There is much more.

Some of the change is a result of Afghan prejudice against outsiders.  But degrading the Taliban command and control structure had to have helped the Afghan forces which are much better than US commanders expected at the time they took over the region.


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