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Instead, we attempted to cooperate more closely with them. We helped them create a locally constituted militia and a valley-wide shura tasked with demanding the surrender or expulsion of all enemy leaders and fighters. More important symbolically than substantively, our efforts were designed to force the locals to share the burden in our fight, and develop a greater responsibility for their security, development, and future.

Fighting ceased until mid-September, when we detained an Aranas shura chief suspected of collaborating with enemy leaders. It was a highly controversial and unpopular move. The arrest exacted a heavy toll over the next three weeks. The consequent backlash produced 15 firefights and the dissolution of the shura. Our action inflamed preexisting rivalries in the village, which splintered into three sections under the strain. Our main objectives stalled.

By early October, we had brokered the formation of a new shura, expedited the construction of a road, a school, and a hydroelectric plant, and restored a short-lived peace. In an effort to open a ground line to our outposts prior to the onset of winter, another platoon drove as far as possible up the primary valley road, blasting narrow sections along the way. On October 31, one of these Humvees was struck by an IED, killing three soldiers, including our company commander. A fourth soldier was seriously wounded. Again, we confronted heartbreaking losses, coped with mounting anger, resentment, and frustration, and tried to move forward.

As we continued to build a more decent relationship with the villagers over the next seven months—our deployment had been extended—it slowly became clear that our achievements simply did not have enough coalition support to last. Afghans are highly pragmatic and ultimately support whichever side brings more benefits than costs. If the coalition had done a better job creating space for effective government and developing the economy without completely destabilizing the region, ordinary Afghans would fully support us in a heartbeat. But five years in, the military occupation had only marginally improved basic infrastructure and governance. The chronic lack of sufficient military manpower, meanwhile, severely curtailed the scope of our influence on these problems.

That was not all. Failure to secure the Pakistan border ensured that our small-unit fighting would be never-ending and purposeless. In that context, the marginal improvements our small force was able to deliver to the Waigul Valley were outweighed by the destabilizing trauma of ongoing fighting where before there had been little. Our accomplishments could have been much more meaningful if we’d operated under a better strategic plan. But stepping back from our makeshift outposts, it seemed ridiculous how much we were asking Afghans like those in Waigul to risk for us.

 

FEATURE:
Losing the Waigul Valley By Erik Malmstrom

 

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