When we think of the war in Afghanistan, chances are we’re thinking of a small, remote corner of the country where American military action has been concentrated: the Pech and its tributary valleys in Kunar and Nuristan provinces. The rugged, steep terrain and thick forests made the region a natural hiding spot for targets in the American war on terror, from Osama bin Laden to the Islamic State, and it has been the site of constant U.S. military activity for nearly two decades. Even as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan transitions to a drone war, the Pech has remained at the center of it, a testbed for a new method of remote warfare.
Wesley Morgan first visited the Pech in 2010, while he was still a college student embedding with military units as a freelancer. By then, the Pech and its infamous tributary the Korengal had become emblematic of the war, but Morgan found that few of the troops fighting there could explain why their remote outposts had been built. “In The Hardest Place,” he unravels the history those troops didn’t know, captures the culture and reality of the war through both American and Afghan eyes, and reports on the snowballing American missteps that made each unit’s job harder than the last as storied outfits like Marines, paratroopers, Rangers, Green Berets, and SEALs all took their turn.
Through reporting trips, hundreds of interviews with Americans and Afghans, and documentary research, Morgan writes vividly of large-scale missions gone awry, years-long hunts for single individuals, and the soldiers, Marines, commandos, and intelligence operatives who cycle through, along with several who return again and again to the same slowly evolving fight.
As the war drags on through its fourth presidential administration, Morgan concludes that we’ve created a status quo that could last forever in the Pech, with the military and intelligence agencies always in search of the next target.
The Afghan soldiers at Camp Blessing had been on their own in the Pech for more than a month after the March 2011 U.S. pullout when headquarters in Kabul got around to sending out a new battalion commander to replace the one who had deserted them. The officer they got was an unlikely fit for one of the toughest postings in the country: not a charismatic combat commander, but a thoughtful, bookish staff officer named Haji Rahmdel Haidarzai. A veteran of the communist-era Afghan military who had served in the post-2001 Afghan National Army (ANA) nearly since its inception, Rahmdel had spent his career in intelligence billets. But he had grown up in the Pech, which the ANA commander responsible for northeastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Afzal, thought would make him a good fit.
Rahmdel disagreed; he didn’t want the job, and said so when General Afzal called him into his office to deliver the news that he would be taking over the isolated 2/2 battalion of the 201st ANA Corps in the post-withdrawal Pech. “I told him I will go anywhere except the Pech, because I am from there and it would create problems for my family,” Rahmdel remembered protesting. Besides to his fears for his family, who still owned a farm outside Nangalam, the town adjacent to Camp Blessing. Rahmdel had never commanded a combat unit, and he didn’t want to start now by taking over one of the only ANA battalions in the whole country that could no longer count on American airpower, artillery, medevac, or resupply.
But General Afzal insisted, and that same night in mid-April 2011, Rahmdel found himself on an American Black Hawk flying up the Pech. “Keep fighting, improve morale,” the ANA’s top general, Sher Mohammad Karimi, exhorted Rahmdel by phone before he boarded the helicopter in Jalalabad. The ANA and American officers who flew with him to Nangalam said the same thing when they saw him off at Blessing’s disused landing zone. Then they got back on the helicopter and were gone.
The half-strength battalion of 200 soldiers that Rahmdel took charge of that morning sometimes felt nearly as much like foreigners on patrol as the Americans had, because most spoke either Dari or the southern Kandahari dialect of Pashto, not the eastern one spoken in the Pech. They had relied on their U.S. counterparts completely for supplies, and they told Rahmdel they were afraid that the battalion executive officer was scheming to sell them out to the Taliban.
“The soldiers had lost their morale. You could see it in their faces, their eyes, their posture,” Rahmdel told me of that first encounter. “All they were thinking was ‘How will we die?’”
In the weeks after the Americans left, battalion operations officer Maj. Mahboob Khan explained to Rahmdel, the executive officer, Maj. Zulfiqar, had opened negotiations with the Taliban. He had also given orders that no one was to fire on the armed Taliban fighters who were now walking around Nangalam openly, strolling within a hundred meters of Blessing’s gates.
The desertion of the previous battalion commander ahead of the U.S. pullout had left the two majors to share control of Camp Blessing and the other Pech outpost the Americans had left them with, Able Main. Mahboob, who had been with the battalion since its founding five years earlier, was a hard worker who had swallowed his private doubts about the American departure, while Zulfiqar, a Pashtun from the nearby Chowkay valley who had recently joined the battalion, exuded a cocky confidence that was rare in an ANA officer: he wore his standard-issue beret neatly and with apparent pride, along with hiking boots, wraparound sunglasses like those American troops always wore, and a nice watch.
Before leaving, departing 1-327 Infantry battalion commander Lt. Col. Joe Ryan had hosted a shura at which many of the Pech’s top elders, including ones who had close ties to insurgent leaders, had signed or stamped with their thumbprints a document pledging their support to the ANA and police in the post-realignment Pech. “All the members of our Islamic government are Muslims,” the agreement pointed out, “so no harm against them is considered to be permissible unless they show signs of being infidels.”
A couple of weeks later, it was Zulfiqar who represented the ANA at another big shura, this time with no Americans present. The message the major offered was not inconsistent with the one put to paper earlier in the month. It even included some of the same talking points. But with the Americans gone, the emphasis was different. “We are all Muslims” was how one elder in attendance remembered the thrust of Zulfiqar’s speech, “so if you’re going to fight the Americans, just leave us out of it.”
Watching events from the base outside the Pech to which he and his men had relocated, Ryan wasn’t overly troubled by the patchy reports coming out of the valley, which suggested that insurgent rocket and mortar attacks against Camp Blessing had plunged almost to zero but also that the terms of the deal the elders, Americans, and Afghan security forces had agreed to in March were being renegotiated now that the Americans were gone. The document stipulated that the “mujahidin” were to stay away from the road and only come into Nangalam unarmed. But no Taliban commanders had put their thumbprints to it, of course, and when armed Taliban fighters made their first appearance in Nangalam shortly after the American departure, the leaderless 2/2 ANA battalion did not try to stop them. The militants drove machine-gun-equipped pickup trucks right into town and parked them by the traffic circle. But they made no move to attack the ANA base or exact retribution against collaborators, other than to collect fines from former base workers. By one account, their first day in town they handed out oranges.
In the absence of a commander, the ANA officer who opened up negotiations with the militants was Zulfiqar, the executive officer. By early April, through intermediaries and directly by phone and radio (in calls that U.S. signals intelligence was listening in on), Zulfiqar was talking to three local Taliban leaders, including Mullah Dawran, the commander who had been fighting the Americans in the Pech for eight years and whose wife and children had died in a Thanksgiving 2009 U.S. rocket strike. There were unverifiable rumors that Zulfiqar went so far as to bring Dawran onto the grounds of the base and talk with him over tea in the vacant battalion commander’s office. Regardless of whether that was true, an agreement was reached: Zulfiqar gave orders that no patrols were to go into town and troops on guard were not to fire on the trucks full of Taliban they could see from their posts. In return, Dawran and the other commanders agreed not to attack the base. According to operations officer Mahboob, who went along with the orders, when one sergeant disobeyed and fired on a group of fighters from his guard tower, Zulfiqar had him locked in a dark room as punishment.
Rahmdel, taking command in this tense and deteriorating climate, was out of his depth. “Everything on the base had been stolen, and as far as electricity and sewage we had to start over at the beginning,” he remembered of the ruinous situation he inherited at Blessing. “The Taliban were a hundred meters away walking with their weapons.” Rahmdel didn’t believe that Zulfiqar was trying to bring reconcilable insurgent leaders into the fold; he was sure his executive officer was trying to arrange the surrender of the base and the battalion to the Taliban, possibly for profit.
With Zulfiqar away at Able Main, Rahmdel reversed the major’s orders, telling the troops on guard to shoot at any Taliban they saw, and he started sending patrols out into town, supporting them with mortar and recoilless-rifle fire when they came under attack. “This showed the soldiers of the battalion that the base was not going to be surrendered,” he explained. His own confidence in the battalion’s ability to fend off a militant assault was low, however. He needed help, if not from his own faraway superiors, then from the latest American unit to deploy to Kunar Province, headquartered not in the Pech but twenty miles away at Camp Joyce.
Rahmdel’s new long-distance American partner was a 40-year-old battalion commander in the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division with weathered features and graying hair, Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, whose 2-35 Infantry battalion replaced Joe Ryan and his 101st Airborne troops in April.
The son of a Citadel graduate and a Citadel graduate himself, Tuley had only recently moved to Oahu to take command of 2-35 after nearly six years in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Like Ryan, Tuley had come to his battalion after several years in the night-raiding 75th Ranger Regiment that had given him little experience coaching Afghan or Iraqi troops. Thrown into that task in Kunar, he was about to spend a year grappling with the problem that would bedevil American commanders and advisers all over Afghanistan in the years to come: With your local allies crying out that they were drowning, how much help was it appropriate to offer when everyone knew they would eventually have to sink or swim on their own?
As Ranger majors, Ryan and Tuley had sometimes switched off with each other in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tuley arriving as Ryan was heading home. Replacing Ryan again that spring at Camp Joyce, Tuley felt his friend had done him a favor, setting him up for a deployment that wouldn’t be monopolized by the Pech and its war of built-up outposts. That had been Ryan’s intent, and he underlined it in his parting advice. No matter how bad things get in the Pech, he urged Tuley, resist the impulse to throw Rahmdel a life preserver in the form of American help.
That made sense to Tuley, but the Pech, as one of his officers would sourly put it after the deployment, proved to share some key qualities with the tar baby from the old stories of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, sucking Americans in against their better judgment. As April turned into May, Rahmdel was calling the interpreters at Joyce every week, sometimes almost every night, urgently reporting that Blessing was about to be attacked and perhaps overrun—only for everything to appear calm and quiet when a Predator arrived overhead to check things out.
Tuley wanted to know what was really going on. With Rahmdel reporting that neither he nor any of his men could drive to Asadabad because of the Taliban checkpoints and IEDs that were proliferating along the Pech road, that meant heading back out to Blessing again for a visit.
For the 2-35 Infantry soldiers who drove through the ambushes on the Pech road below and reached Blessing in early May, including Tuley, it was hard to believe that the place had been a U.S. forward operating base only two months earlier. The place was a husk of the base Tuley had seen when he visited on a pre-deployment recon in the fall. Metal roofs were missing, floors torn up, doors ripped off. Garbage and rotting food were everywhere, and with the septic tanks and attached latrines overflowing, the Afghan soldiers had started defecating in shower stalls and buildings, including the old chow hall. Oddly, the ANA had kept their radio operators in the old U.S. battalion operations center; the soldiers still sat in the same corner, with the same equipment, facing the same wall with the same map on it. Otherwise the building was empty, and its halls stank of urine.
To Tuley, it seemed clear that Rahmdel’s battalion was collapsing as surely as the base itself was. “When I saw the way it was out there, feces on the walls, everything torn off and broken down, everything a mess, I had a hard time getting past that,” he recalled. “The ANA did not take the baton after the realignment out there. They took the baton and they threw it somewhere else.”
From the book “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley” by Wesley Morgan. Copyright © 2021 by Wesley Moore. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. “The Hardest Place” is available for purchase.
Wesley Morgan is a military affairs reporter who most recently covered the Pentagon for two and a half years at Politico. He previously worked as a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., Iraq, and Afghanistan, contributing stories to The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic and other publications. He is an alumnus of Princeton University.
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