What Losing Looks Like: Afghanistan’s ‘Hardest Place’
Wesley Morgan, The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley (Random House, 2021)
Afghanistan’s hoary reputation as “the graveyard of empires” is ill-deserved. Foreign invaders have generally withdrawn from the country — under varying levels of duress — because they simply decided an Afghan ulcer was no longer tolerable. Even the British Empire, its first military expedition annihilated almost to a man, returned in force in 1878 and 1919. Defeat, even disaster, in Afghanistan has not consistently augured an end to empires.
To the hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemembers who fought in rural Afghanistan, the place could feel timeless and almost untouched by these waves of outsiders. The mud brick or stone villages felt like a trip back to the 13th century, with only motorbikes, automatic rifles, and cell phones intruding. Fortresses and other military detritus seemed to be the only lingering evidence of armed tourists from Alexander to the Americans. Hesco and plywood patrol bases, many initially handed over to Afghan security forces and now all in Taliban hands, are just the latest Ozymandian testimony to imperial hubris.
A decade ago, journalist Wesley Morgan began the first of several embeds with U.S. Army units in northeastern Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, which winds through the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Like the soldiers he covered, Morgan was drawn to the hyper-violent valley with a “strange, edge of the map feeling to it.” Those Hesco outposts, in particular, fascinated him. Who had originally built them and why were they there? The soldiers didn’t know. To them, rural Afghanistan had a different sort of timelessness: getting through one nasty Groundhog Day after another, until it was time to go home. After watching what he quickly realized was a bloody stalemate, Morgan set out to find out how the U.S. Army had become mired in this intractable fight in the back of beyond.
It was a truism in Kunar that “no matter how high you went, there was always higher ground.” Some summits were over 15,000 feet. The Pech was also thickly wooded, with conifer forests that reminded Americans of both the Pacific Northwest and Star Wars’ planet Endor. Even extremely fit soldiers found the environment daunting. Operations, said one, could be like two-and-a-half hours on a Stairmaster. A SEAL master chief with 11 combat deployments under his belt described Kunar as “like being on a different planet.”
The Pech was particularly inhospitable to light infantry units that liked to fly to work. The thick forests and steep hillsides meant that helicopter landing zones were few and far between, while lighter rotary-wing aircraft struggled in the thin air above 10,000 feet. The Army’s best helicopter pilots felt that in Kunar the terrain, not the enemy, was the real problem.
America’s newest high-tech weapon was also hamstrung in the Pech. Predator drones couldn’t see through dense forests and were more audible at higher altitudes. One captured insurgent commander even said he could see the unmanned aircraft tracking him when the sun hit its wings at a certain angle.
With this beautiful and dangerous setting, the campaign in Kunar Province stood out as the platonic ideal of war in Afghanistan. The paratroopers of the Pech weren’t patrolling improvised explosive device alleys like their marine cousins in dusty Helmand Province. Battling ferocious tribal fighters on beautiful mountaintops, terraced villages, and soaring cedar forests, infantrymen in the Pech could often see and directly engage their enemies. American troops could also employ their entire arsenal: jets, attack helicopters, artillery, mortars, and copious drones all blasted away unceasingly at any insurgent concentration that could be found. At one point midway through the war, 70 percent of all the bombs dropped in Afghanistan were in the Pech and its side valleys, like the even more infamous Korengal. One battalion, in a 15-month tour, called in nearly 4,000 airstrikes.
Heroism went hand-in-hand with all the ordnance. The majority of the Medals of Honor awarded in Afghanistan were for actions in Kunar and Nuristan. 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment became the most heavily decorated unit since Vietnam. But as the old saw goes, valor awards are almost always earned as a result of a failure of planning or leadership at a higher echelon.
The Pech broke some men who survived it, sending them back to America and civilian life with permanent combat trauma. Others, though, got a different “Kunar syndrome.” With its stark beauty and brutal combat, there was nothing else in the war like the Pech. One veteran enthused: “You get there, and the Pech delivered in every way.” Multiple soldiers testified, in nearly identical language, that “you really felt like you were doing what you signed up for.” The Pech, for many Americans who fought there, was war as it ought to be.
The Korengal and Pech valleys are well-trodden ground for journalists. The fighting there has yielded a volume of coverage commensurate with its intensity. Excellent journalistic accounts like Sebastian Junger’s War and Jake Tapper’s The Outpost have been matched by a growing stack of Kunar military memoirs. Junger’s justly lauded trio of documentaries, Restrepo, Korengal, and The Last Patrol, has been joined by blockbuster films like Lone Survivor and The Outpost. No other theater of the war has received as much attention.
What sets The Hardest Place apart — and what makes it the definitive account of the war in Kunar — is the book’s breadth and continuity. Other accounts are more granular and visceral. None can match the two-decade arc of Morgan’s work, nor the larger themes this allows him to explore. From Guantanamo to the Islamic State, the Pech serves as a proxy for the broader American invasion, occupation, and slow, painful withdrawal.
U.S. forces were initially drawn to Kunar and Nuristan by counter-terrorism. Osama bin Laden, as the CIA correctly surmised, had been sheltered after Tora Bora by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the Shigal Valley, less than ten miles from the Pech. When bin Laden’s trail went cold, the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command scoured the valleys for other Arab jihadis. Conventional Army troops followed in their wake. They quickly found — or created — new enemies.
Once it began in earnest, the campaign in the Pech became self-defeating. Morgan describes how U.S. operations created a vicious cycle, with civilian casualties pushing local men into the arms of the Taliban. An AC-130 gunship annihilated seven children in a streambed, having mistaken them for insurgents. A nervous American machine gunner killed three local policemen in their car. Four months later, an errant mortar round hit a little girl. “The scar tissue built up.”
The elite raiders of special operations units, regularly sent into the valleys after high value targets, also did their part. Soldiers at one Pech base, Combat Outpost Michigan, joked that the code name the for Joint Special Operations Command unit at the time, Task Force 373, stood for:
3 for the three minutes it took the JSOC operators to kill everybody in their target building, a 7 for the seven months of winning hearts and minds that such a raid undid, and another 3 for the three years it would take to smooth things over with the community afterward.
The Pech, Morgan discovered, had actually been relatively inhospitable to the Taliban before the Americans arrived. Many Kunaris were Salafists, not Deobandi Muslims like the Taliban. American missteps — detentions, deaths, and interference by the Afghan government in the region’s lucrative timber trade — induced them to ally with the Taliban as the U.S. occupation wore on.
As in the war writ large, the Pech’s American visitors found it a lot easier to get in than to get out. Despite the formidable terrain, the endless supply of enemy fighters, and the Sisyphean nature of the security and governance challenge, the Army chose to double down. Some of its best officers, true believers and future generals leading storied battalions with nicknames like “The Rock,” threw themselves into building outposts and killing insurgents. The PowerPoint title slide of one unit spoke to the collective ethos: “If it is possible, it’s been done. If it is impossible, we will do it.”
Like virtually every other prestigious guild in modern American life, the U.S. Army’s officer corps has become credentialized and ostensibly meritocratic. That its merit badges are often actual badges does not erase their salience. It becomes clear who the front row kids are.
One of the heroes of Morgan’s story is a man who didn’t have a glittering military curriculum vitae. A tall, bald eccentric whose soldiers nicknamed him “Earthworm Jim,” Lt. Col. Brett Jenkinson had wound up an infantryman because his West Point grades didn’t pass muster for the Army Corps of Engineers. His 1-26 Infantry battalion, the “Blue Spaders,” were a new unit resurrecting the heraldry of a World War I regiment. Filled with brand-new privates and noncommissioned officers scrounged from around the Army, Jenkinson’s battalion was both understrength and a far cry from the elite airborne units that preceded it in the valley. One platoon leader put it bluntly to Morgan: “We were a jumbled mess that was cobbled together at the last minute.”
But unlike his star-bound peers who passed through the Pech, Jenkinson asked himself, and, more importantly, his superiors, a first-order question: What are we accomplishing here? Tortured by the mounting deaths of his men and increasingly convinced that the U.S. force in the Korengal Valley was doing little more than protecting itself, Jenkinson relentlessly made the case for withdrawal to peers, superiors, and reporters. U.S. forces left the Korengal in 2010, having lost 28 soldiers (and the 19 Navy SEALs and aircrew killed during the infamous Operation Red Wings in 2005). Without Jenkinson’s stridency, Morgan believes, the unwinnable campaign in Afghanistan’s most violent valley might have gone on even longer.
Counter-insurgency doctrine died slowly in the Pech. Early Army units, and their superiors in Kabul, had embraced roadbuilding as the spearhead of development in the valley. But American infantry units repeatedly defaulted to their ingrained tactics. A succession of battalions conducted what Morgan aptly terms “pilgrimages” — large-scale air assaults into the Korengal, Waygal, and other tributary valleys. They found insurgents to kill, sometimes by the hundreds. But as a two-time Pech veteran observed many years later, “There will always be dragons to slay up there.”
By 2010, officers who had been enthusiastic pilgrims on prior deployments to the Pech were telling their commanders that the valley was “the ultimate cul de sac” and — to use one of the war’s most common clichés — a “self-licking ice cream cone.” America’s commandos had also lost their enthusiasm for high-risk raids in the mountains. Adm. Bill McRaven succinctly vetoed one proposed operation into Kunar: “I’ve parked enough helicopters up there.”
The Hardest Place is fundamentally about the U.S. Army, not Afghanistan. But unlike many other accounts, Morgan strove to include the Afghan perspective, with copious interviews of Pech locals, interpreters, Afghan National Army soldiers, and Afghan politicians in both Kunar and Kabul. The Afghans saw the U.S. Army far more clearly than it saw itself. The Hardest Place succeeds in large part because of this effort to try to see the war through Afghan eyes.
Yet as diligent as Morgan is, what really distinguishes him is his honesty and ability to discern fact from fiction. The U.S. Army has many virtues. It also has an enormous capacity for self-deception, as the overnight collapse of the Afghan military has so vividly demonstrated. Morgan writes with quiet empathy for his subjects, but unlike many journalists, he is not taken in by the U.S. military’s mystique or its self-exculpatory narratives. His indictment of the Army’s ceaselessly can-do culture and its strategic vacuity is all the more powerful for its evenhanded tone.
The book’s epilogue is especially relevant today. Anyone confidently making predictions about Afghanistan after the events of August should be regarded with skepticism, but a future in which the United States covertly or overtly supports the Taliban against the terrorists of the Islamic State is a distinct possibility. Leveraging a decade’s worth of military and intelligence sources, Morgan was able to chronicle how just such a campaign has already unfolded, with radio and cell phone intercepts enabling U.S. drones to serve as “the Taliban Air Force” in the fight against the Islamic State in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces.
As the postwar reckoning over America’s Afghanistan intervention takes shape, The Hardest Place is already being recognized as one of the essential books for understanding the war. But as a portrait of an army slowly stumbling toward defeat, it belongs in broader company with anatomies of military failure like A Bright Shining Lie. Anyone looking to understand how the Global War on Terrorism became a two-decade disaster for American arms and American statecraft will find few accounts more worthy of their time.
Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities. He deployed twice to Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine infantry officer.