- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A note from the editor of this series on war & remembrance:
I met this week’s contributor, John Rodriguez, in 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry when he was a newly promoted captain. Already John had the unusual capacity to understand his intensely personal combat experience and contextualize it within the theater, within our migrating national strategy, and even within the broader human experience of war. As Paul Yingling noted last week, accurately contextualizing experience is essential if we hope to remember war productively. While the Korengal campaign is singular in its details, it is also an unfortunately common demonstration of the axiom that power projection, a derivative of national will, is finite. In Afghanistan, our national will met its end at the mouth of this valley.
— Paul Edgar
By John Rodriguez
Best Defense guest columnist
Many American veterans have felt the frustration of winning every battle only to lose the war, as it has often proven difficult to translate American military superiority into sustainable political gains. While this is a very real and valid kind of disillusionment, I had the more ignoble experience of witnessing an American battlefield defeat.
My war was Afghanistan and my battle was for the Korengal Valley.
The retreat from the Korengal in the spring of 2010 cannot be compared to other defeats in American history. It was not the retreat from the Yalu; it was no Kasserine Pass. However, you see the limits of American strength when a superpower can’t pacify a small valley. The experience fundamentally shaped how I view war and intensified my desire to study military strategy and the diversity of the military experience.
Journalist Sebastian Junger described the Korengal as “Afghanistan’s Afghanistan.” The Korengali, a xenophobic and isolated tribe, inhabit this heavily wooded remote valley in North-Eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. The Korengal became the most violent sector in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008, a dubious distinction earning it the moniker “the Valley of Death.” The U.S. committed one rifle company after another to the Korengal: 10th Mountain, 173rd Airborne, 1st Infantry, and 4th Infantry. Each fought their heart out, only to come out battered and bloodied with the Valley untamed. Ultimately 42 Americans were killed for this six-mile long valley home to, at most, 10,000 inhabitants.
The most poignant symbol of American impotence was the Korengal road. Named ironically ‘Route Victory,’ it was a narrow dirt road critical to resupplying our forces. Unit after unit pledged to pave the road not only to reduce the threat from buried IEDs but to integrate the isolated countryside, thereby extending the Afghan government’s control. But this never happened. Despite frequent fits and starts, the road never made it past the non-Korengali village at the mouth of the Valley.
The United States became embroiled in the Korengal in many ways because of hubris. After losing so many men in Operation Red Wings, we pushed into the Korengal to punish the enemy and deny their sanctuary — the idea of an inaccessible region seemed anathema to our commanders. However, there was no long-term plan for how to win the Valley, and it became a microcosm for America’s experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite a comparatively large concentration of forces and superior materiel, we never mustered enough combat power and resources to achieve victory — nor the vision to know what strategic victory should look like.
When I first joined the Army many of my instructors were veterans of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Their teachings emphasized audacious, aggressive action, and the defense was only a temporary posture to prepare for more offensive actions. Naturally, when forced to trim course material, the entire week on the defense was cut for my class. Unlike my instructors, I was never on an armored thunder run, but I did tenaciously defend my Company’s combat outposts for a year.
My instructors were training me for the war they fought, but that war was over. I tried to prepare my platoon for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan by studying Vietnam. I paid out of pocket, after being denied unit funds, to give my platoon copies of The Village so they could learn lessons from an earlier generation of young Americans. This inspired discussions about how we would operate in Afghanistan. For while our situation wasn’t identical to Vietnam, we still faced brutal, small unit fighting against a tough and resilient guerilla foe.
Anyone can opine on the difficulty and costliness of war, but is tough to appreciate fully until lived. Sitting in Washington, it is easy to act tough, beat the drums of war, and forget the true nature of conflict. In this day of drone-delivered ‘targeted strikes,’ it is tempting to think of war as neat and surgical; something that can be applied deftly with a light touch, small commitment, and sense of impunity. However, the civilians and houses smashed by bombs, the chaos and fog of the battlefield belie this vision of efficient military effects.
However, these challenges do not make me advocate beating our swords into ploughshares. They just mean that war’s bloody and unpredictable nature, in which the enemy always has a vote, requires that we must think long and hard before resorting to military means, and we must have a clear and realistic strategy when we do. A superpower must also have the patience and courage to use other tools of our national power, like diplomacy and economic statecraft, to address national security challenges where possible.
Predicting future challenges to national and international security is all but impossible, but that is why we must study war in all its facets and forms. Only by developing holistic strategies using all elements of our national power will we achieve our national security ends. If nothing else, the Korengal taught me that simply wishing for or expecting victory won’t make it so.
John Rodriguez served six years as an Army infantry officer, including a deployment to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley from 2008 to 2009. He also has been a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with the Center for National Policy in Washington, DC.
Photo credit: U.S. Army/Flickr