Taliban retreat from area occupied by US troops

NY Times:

A year ago, the Taliban were tormenting this lush valley just miles from the Afghan capital, kidnapping people and blocking the road.

All that changed when American troops arrived in February. They dropped from helicopters and set up three camps where there had been none, expecting a fight. Instead, the Taliban put up almost no resistance and left for other areas. Now trucks travel freely and merchants no longer fear for their lives.

“Compared with last year, it’s 100 percent different,” said Muhamed Zaker, an apple farmer from the area.

The Jalrez Valley is a test case, the first area in Afghanistan where President Obama’s strategy of increasing troop levels has been applied, and it is a promising early indicator.

But in Afghanistan, a complex patchwork of tribes, ethnicities and rivalries, it remains unclear whether the early success in this area can be replicated. In the painstaking business of counterinsurgency, security requires more than just extra troops. It means giving Afghans reasons to reject the insurgents by providing the basic trappings of a state — an effective police force, enough government services, and economic opportunity so they can work rather than fight.


But Afghanistan is a country where only a third of the population can read and even the most rudimentary infrastructure is lacking, and commanders on the ground say rushing the process would be a mistake.

“It’s construction, not reconstruction,” one American officer said, comparing the task with that in Iraq, where the American effort was referred to as reconstruction.

One problem is that the gains in Jalrez could still be temporary. Insurgents regularly leave areas where Americans appear, only to resurface later. “We are hearing it’s better now,” said Hoji Mir Ahmad, a fruit merchant based in Kabul, “but God knows what things will be like when the harvest comes.”

When the Americans came to the Jalrez Valley, a skinny finger of green just 30 miles west of Kabul, the capital, Taliban fighters had controlled it for more than a year, taking advantage of a virtual absence of American troops. A unit of about 200 American soldiers had patrolled an area of half a million people and was so thinly spread that its captain had to drive 12 hours to hold a meeting with a local leader.

Humiliations had become routine: The Taliban would blacken the faces of men they said were thieves and parade them. In Jalrez Bazaar, a town west of the valley, eight people were killed in 2008, residents said.

“It looked like we didn’t have any destiny,” said Momin Shah, a farmer, sitting on a crate in a small supply shop.

Fearing that the Taliban were tightening their hold around Kabul, the Americans were sent to secure the two provinces just south and west of it, Logar and Wardak, the gateway to the capital and the location of the country’s main north-south highway.

Then came the first surprise: The Taliban left for other areas rather than fight. Musa Hotak, a member of Parliament from Jalrez District who is a former Taliban commander, said the two main militant leaders had moved with their families to Pakistan.

The reason, American officers said, was simple math. The new contingent increased the number of Americans tenfold. “Mass counts,” said Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, a commander in the new battalion.

I know I harp on the importance of having an adequate force to space ratio, but this story demonstrates the effect. When you have the numbers in a counterinsurgency operation, it is not so much the mass as the math. You can control space and make it impossible for the enemy to move to contact without detection. That is why they left. They knew that once they were detected they risked destruction from US ground forces or air power. They know they can't compete. You saw similar retreats in Iraq after we increased the troop levels.

Those Taliban who retreated to Pakistan have to be worried about being caught in a pincer if the Pakistan army sustains its current operation and pushes on up to the border areas.


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