US military pulls out of key eastern Afghan valley

AFP – February 25, 2011

The US military has begun pulling soldiers out of the Pech valley in eastern Afghanistan, a location once said to be vital to the war effort in the region, the Pentagon said Friday.

The commander of US-led forces in eastern Afghanistan, Major General John Campbell, is “repositioning” forces “within the province to achieve greater effect and allow for more flexibility,” said Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokesperson.

Campbell, “is moving forces around within his area of responsibility away from isolated static security outposts and more towards protecting the population in Kunar (province),” said Robbins.

“There are dozens of mountain passes and we cannot be in all of them,” Robbins said, confirming the news first reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The Post said that a battalion of some 800 US troops have been deployed to the valley since 2006.

“If your forces are static, it takes away your opportunities and flexibility,” Campbell told the Post.

The Times reported that US soldiers began withdrawing from the valley starting on February 15 in a two-month long operation. Afghan army units will remain in the valley.

However the Afghan army many not be up to the task.

“It will be difficult for Afghans to hold these areas on their own. The terrain there is very tough,” Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told the Post.

“I personally fought against the Soviets in that area,” he said.

During the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Pech valley, located near the border with Pakistan, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between the Afghan resistance and Soviet soldiers.

The Soviets pulled out of the valley in 1988, and many Afghans saw it as a key turning moment in the war, the Times said. Within six months the mujahedeen resistance groups had taken the valley from the Soviet-supported Afghan army.

Nearly 1,500 US troops have died in Afghanistan in the longest US war, launched in 2001 to root out Al-Qaeda extremists responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States.

President Barack Obama ordered a 30,000-strong surge under a last-ditch war strategy in late 2009, ahead of handing security to Afghan forces in 2014.

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