On a bright, unusually warm morning last winter, I hiked with an American platoon into the steep, crumbling hills of the Pech Valley to a small village called Khaki Banday. We stumbled upon ancient goat trails and listened over a radio scanner as Taliban spotters warned each other of our approach. Soldiers peering through rifle scopes saw villagers hurrying into their homes and shutting the doors, battening down before violence. But the Americans weren't looking for a fight; they wanted to deliver a message. When villagers finally re-emerged, blinking, the Americans told them: It's time for you to stand up for yourselves, because we'll be leaving soon.
The words proved truer than any of the soldiers could have known. Barely a year later, U.S. forces are pulling out of Pech Valley, in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province. The U.S. military once considered this harsh, mountainous terrain along the Pakistani border crucial, and it poured years of aid into the valley. Now some Afghan officials say the United States is abandoning the Pech, and they warn that new waves of Taliban fighters will swarm in. U.S. officers have, of course, described the pullout differently.
"I prefer to look at it as realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people," Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, told the New York Times last week.
At best, Pech residents might feel reasonably optimistic about the future; much has been done there in terms of development and governance training. At worst, the pullout is simply declaring victory and departing, more proof of NATO's unsteady, eroding presence in eastern Afghanistan after nearly a decade of brutal and costly battles. And it follows a pattern that heralds the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In the increasingly complicated accounting of the war, the Pech is no longer worth its price in lives and cash. It is territory better left to wobbling Afghan forces while U.S. troops slide into a support role with an eye on their final departure. Seen from above, the Pech reveals U.S. strategy in miniature.
Whatever the perspective, the Americans leave the Pech as the Soviets did, bearing the scars of a long, painful education. And locals' memories will be stained by the Americans' latest tragic mistake -- the killing on March 1 of nine boys by a helicopter crew who thought they were insurgents. It is a bleak final note in what has been a troubled occupation. Soon after they arrived in the region in 2003, U.S. forces began fighting nearly everyone -- local tribes, the Taliban, and other insurgents -- in some of the war's heaviest combat. Enemy fighters slipped in and out of Pakistan, and Afghan security forces never really stood up.
Still, by the time of my visit in 2009 and early 2010, U.S. commanders were able to claim solid progress in the Pech. They told me they'd recently killed several Taliban leaders. Mortar attacks were down. Construction projects were increasing. And the Americans and their Afghan allies were renewing efforts to convince remaining Taliban to switch sides. So, if the gains were recent and real, why suddenly withdraw?
The truth is that the Pech was never a NATO priority, and those successes may well have been the last fruits of years of halting trial and error, perishable victories that owed much to good luck and the Taliban's historic dislike of cold-weather fighting. Last year in the Pech and other regions, the inevitability of withdrawal was already palpable. No one knew when it would begin, but it was guaranteed by U.S. President Barack Obama's new war strategy, in which he promised a drawdown from Afghanistan this summer. Obama didn't say he'd siphon soldiers directly from the Pech, but many in the military concluded that the clock on Afghanistan was officially ticking, and that it ticked faster in certain places.
As I traveled along the eastern front, I saw the mood of departure manifest in hyperactivity or in inertia. Some officers hurried to take on as many small projects as they could, while others told me it was simply a matter of low-level maintenance "until we leave."
The mood seeped beyond military affairs. One morning, I sat with a State Department official in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar, discussing women's rights. "No one talks about it anymore," she said. "It's sort of ..." She drew an imaginary curtain between us in the air. "We're concentrating on other things."
A few weeks later, in the province next door, a U.S. officer complained that Afghan troops in his area routinely failed to receive supplies, including new weapons and fuel. He said Afghan commanders often refused to distribute the equipment, that they valued a full warehouse over fully supplied troops. This seemed particularly frustrating in a region known as the home field of the Haqqani network, one of Afghanistan's most fearsome insurgent groups.
"I think they're stockpiling weapons for when we leave, so they can form their own militias," the officer said. I asked whether he could do anything about it. He shrugged tiredly. It was an Afghan military issue, which was ultimately a political problem at a higher level. "The focus is elsewhere," he said.
In other areas, like the notorious Korengal Valley, adjacent to the Pech, American ambitions were even more obviously stunted. I remember standing at the mouth of the Korengal listening to officers tell me that no amount of firepower or aid had succeeded there. They were at a loss -- Korengalis often seemed to fight as much out of a desire to be left alone as for religious or ideological reasons. Finally, military planners decided the focus wasn't in the Korengal, either, and last summer U.S. troops pulled out. Call it foreshadowing: Many Afghans in the Pech told me they simply wanted everyone to leave -- the Americans, the Taliban, and their own government.
They'll probably be just fine on their own. U.S. officers and civilians I knew in the Pech have recently dismissed Afghan officials' worries about abandonment. They told me they're confident in the locals' ability to govern and defend themselves, and I believe them. Pech tribes are tough and resilient; they were among the first to rise up against Afghan communists and their Soviet allies in the late 1970s, and they will use whatever NATO has given them to carve out their own future.
But that isn't what NATO is thinking of as it plots its ever-shifting, often confused, and now diminishing course in Afghanistan. In the broader scheme of quitting a country, it makes sense to remove units from the war's periphery, rather than vital central regions. Still -- it being winter and the Pech being a very cold place -- realignment is oddly suggestive of hypothermia, where, to save itself from freezing to death, the human body shuts down region by region. First, blood and heat seep away from the extremities. The fingers and toes go numb, then the legs and arms, everything turning blue, heat pooling around the heart and organs until, at last, nothing can prevent collapse. NATO is choosing heart over limbs, though many wonder whether it is already too late.
A year ago, on that calm day in Khaki Banday, an elder stood in the soft light and listened as the U.S. soldiers told him they would leave his valley some day soon. He seemed confused, or perhaps he wondered why he should care. He had been born in the Pech, spent most of his years there, and the Americans had never come to see him before. When they finished, he began reminiscing about the other, earlier war.
"A hundred Russians died in a great battle just over there," he said, pointing to a ridge of barren rock. The military interpreter looked at me and squinted, as if to say probably not that many. But the Russians suffered in the Pech, and roughly that many Americans have also died fighting in the region during the last eight years.
I asked the old man whom he preferred. Russians, Americans?
"Americans!" he said. "It's better now. When the Russians saw a young man, they just shot him. They killed everything, cows, sheep, goats, dogs."
He pointed to the bare earth beside us. "Twelve cows were killed there by a Russian shell."
What will he say of the Americans in six months, a year? Perhaps they were better than the Russians, better than the Taliban. But soon they will be gone, and his life probably won't change much. Perhaps, from his perspective high in the Pech, it all simply appears the same, one long, loud, violent procession that has lasted half his life.