The senior U.S. officer in the Pech, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Ryan, surprised me when I interviewed him about his battalion’s mission. Forty-one years old but with less gray in his short haircut than some of his company commanders, Ryan was a West Point graduate from Pearl River, New York, and he had been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq since the first months after September 11, as an officer in the night-raiding 75th Ranger Regiment.
I had become accustomed to commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq promoting the counterinsurgency operations their units were conducting, even hyping them—rattling off numbers to indicate progress, making rosy predictions about the situations they would hand off to their successors. Ryan didn’t do that. It was the summer of President Barack Obama’s Afghan surge, and with nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in the country, all the other battalions I’d visited over the past couple of months had been expanding, building new outposts in new districts. But Ryan talked about retracting. “Sometimes just your presence causes destabilization. We see that on our patrols here,” he said. “Here, the time is done for coalition forces to keep spreading out into more places.”
Since April, he acknowledged, attacks on COP Michigan had increased, likely because the Korengal pullout had shifted insurgents’ attention toward the base. Michigan, in fact, was now enduring more daily attacks than any other U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Ryan wasn’t convinced that he or his troops, or indeed any other Americans, understood enough about what was going on within the complex coalition of insurgent factions in the Pech to conclude that any particular change in the guerrillas’ behavior was the result of U.S. actions. During the same period that attacks against Michigan had risen, for example, attacks against Camp Blessing had decreased, and he didn’t know why.
There was another thing Ryan didn’t claim to know for sure: just what he and his men were doing in the Pech. “Why are we here?” he asked me. “Are we building a nation? Are we chasing terrorists? I read the same news as you do, and it doesn’t always seem very clear.” [Continue reading…]