Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Restrepo: When Counter-Insurgency Meets Rough Geography

WARNING:  SPOILERS


A section of The Accidental Guerrilla is dedicated to the construction of a road through Kunar Province.  The Coalition was successful in persuading local Afghans to buy in to the road and get involved with its construction.  The invested Afghans then ensured their road was protected by creating a societal gap between themselves and the Taliban who wished to harm both the road and Coalition forces who used the road.  Despite rough terrain and a typically isolated Pashtun population, successful counter-insurgency tactics allowed for a Coalition victory.

However, not far away in Kunar Province is the Korangal Valley.  This valley is full of steep ridges and deep valleys.  It is located near the Pakistan border.  It is also in this valley where United States soldiers step up several firebases and began a road construction project in the mold of the other Kunar project.  Unlike the other project, though, the geography in valley did not favor a similar outcome.  The valley and the soldiers are at the center of the documentary Restrepo which documents one of the most hotly contested parts of Afghanistan.

The first issue was the physical geography.  The first base was in a bowl which the Taliban could easily shoot into.  After a few firefights the Americans take the initiative and seize the commanding heights.  However, there are too few troops to push the advantage and keep forcing the Taliban to fall back.  After a while there is an offensive operation but the ground cannot be held because the lack of troops and the close-range fighting which resulted in both American and civilian causalities.  Much of the remainder of the time is spent fighting between a static line of control.

The second major problem was the human terrain.  Tribal and elder leadership did not value the road like elsewhere in Kunar and villagers would not build the road without elder approval.  Instead the elders wished to discuss damage done by soldiers and detained locals.  The American commander's various responses and blame shifting prevented any bonds from growing.

What was the result?  A Taliban victory.  A postscript describes how the military abandoned the valley in April 2010.  The Taliban quickly released videos of their exploration of the Coalition firebases.



The rough physical terrain dwarfed the limited amount of troops who were stationed in the valley.  The local population could have been a massive force multiplier and could have made the Taliban easy targets.  However, the failure to culturally engaged and the style of warfare made the locals neutral at best and hostile in many cases.

Restrepo is a good documentary on multiple levels.  It shows what has gone wrong in Afghanistan but it also portrays the bravery of soldiers who risk their lives for the Afghans and every other free citizen of the world.

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