Highlighting Elizabeth Rubin's NYT piece on the Korengal Valley

A great article from Elizabeth Rubin in the New York Times on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  A well-written story on the challenges of pacifying a region where the locals, so far, see no reason to side with the U.S. 

Below the fold are my yellow highlights if I had I had a hard copy subscription.

The Korengal fighters are fierce, know the terrain and watch the Americans’ every move. On their hand-held radios, the old jihadis call the Americans “monkeys,” “infidels,” ‘’bastards” and “the kids.” It’s psychological warfare; they know the Americans monitor their radio chatter.

the Korengal is like a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, “and we’re the L.A.P.D. kicking in the door, arresting guys, demanding information about the gangs, and slowly the people say, ‘No, we don’t know anything, because that guy in the gang, he’s with my sister, and that other guy, he’s my uncle’s cousin.’ Now we’ve angered them for so many years that they’ve decided: ‘I’m gonna stick with the A.C.M.’ ” — anticoalition militants — “ ‘who are my brothers and I’m not gonna rat them out.’ ”

The insurgents were testing the new captain, he suspected, by deliberately shooting from homes.

“The only reason anyone’s listening to me in this valley right now is ’cause I’m dropping bombs on them.” Still, he wasn’t going to let himself shoot at houses every time his unit took fire: “I’d just create more people that hate me.”

IN LATE 2001, the B-52 symbolized, for many Afghans, liberation from Taliban rule. They wove images of the plane into their carpets.

At the same time, to Afghans with little technological sophistication, the scale and impersonality make the accidents seem intentional.

Early on, they led the Americans to drop bombs on the mansion of their biggest rival — Haji Matin. The air strikes killed several members of his family, according to local residents, and the Americans arrested others and sent them to the prison at Bagram Air Base. The Pech Valley fighters working alongside the Americans then pillaged the mansion. And that was that. Haji Matin, already deeply religious, became ideological and joined with Abu Ikhlas, a local Arab linked to the foreign jihadis.

When some generals and colonels had flown in for a quick tour, and Kearney was showing them the lay of the land, one officer said to another, as Kearney later recalled it, “I don’t know why we’re even out here.”

It didn’t take long to understand why so many soldiers were taking antidepressants. The soldiers were on a 15-month tour that included just 18 days off. Many of them were “stop-lossed,” meaning their contracts were extended because the army is stretched so thin.

It was a lot to ask of young soldiers: play killer, cultural anthropologist, hearts-and-minds winner and then killer again. Which is why, just hours before the mission was to begin, some soldiers were smearing black-and-green war paint on their faces when their sergeant shouted: “Take it off. Now!” Why? They’d frighten the villagers.

If he didn’t manage to explain his actions to the Yaka China villagers and get them to understand his intentions, he could lose them to the enemy. Meanwhile, Yarnell and his team were intercepting radio messages like: “Be very quiet. Move the things over here. Pray for us.” At least some of the insurgents from the previous night’s fight had survived to fight again. The planes were tracking them hiding along a creek. But after the civilian casualties of the night before, senior commanders were refusing to give Kearney clearance to bomb or rocket them.

Powerful stuff.