An Interview With Wesley Morgan on Warfare in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan
The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, by journalist Wesley Morgan, focuses on a mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan with narrow valleys whose sides rise sharply through forested slopes to high glaciers. The book is based in Morgan’s extensive experience in the region, gained through reporting trips conducted when he was embedded with the U.S. military and which date back to 2010. Drawing on those trips, and on other interviews with soldiers, officers, military contractors, intelligence personnel and others, he lays out the systematic obstacles that led the American military into a stalemate of large and small missions.
Morgan traces the shift of the American focus in Afghanistan from Al Qaeda to ISIS to the Taliban, and shows how the military’s organization, technology and strategies made them unable to establish lasting alliances in rural areas, limiting their ability to maintain control over territory beyond bases and major roads. With the recent announcement of the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, Morgan’s book acquires new significance, since it offers deep insight into the challenges that led to the stalemate and withdrawal.
We present here a recent exchange between Morgan and GlacierHub’s editor, Ben Orlove. This exchange centers on the importance of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, particularly the Hindu Kush with its high glaciated peaks, where the Pech Valley—the “hardest place” of the book’s title—is located.
GlacierHub: Your book traces the connections between the topography of the Pech Valley and the limitations of the ground vehicles. Because of the threats of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the U.S. military shifted from Humvees to even larger vehicles, which had to stay principally on the major paved roads. The narrow roads up the side canyons of the Pech were suited to pick-up trucks and other small vehicles, which were vulnerable to attack. Chapter 9 is titled “Stuck in the Valley of Death” and Chapter 10 is titled “The Cul-de-Sac.” Do you think that there were other options for ground transport which the U.S. military could have considered? If relations with local populations had been stronger, would alternatives have been available?
Wesley Morgan: I can imagine it playing out a few different ways, but the way it actually did play out — with the military gradually becoming largely road-bound — does almost seem inevitable looking back on it, as a predictable U.S. response to insurgent IEDs in a war where tolerance for casualties was low. When the Soviets were in the same area in the 1980s, they evolved almost in the opposite way (contrary to the common stereotype of their experience), coming in with a reliance on large armored vehicles but moving in the direction of smaller, more nimble patrols that used helicopter transport to get to landing zones high in the mountains and then stayed up there for days at a time. Their approach looked more like U.S. recon units in Vietnam than it did like the U.S. approach in the Pech — but it presented a high risk of these small units being compromised and overrun.
The steep slopes and thick conifer forests in the mountains north and south of the Pech also mean there are very few usable landing zones for helicopters, but the military might have gotten around that by relying more heavily on fast-rope insertions. As it was, special operations units like the Rangers and SEALs fast-roped into the mountains very occasionally, and conventional units pretty much never did, in part because they had less short-notice access than the special operations guys did to helicopters, which were kept at large bases in the rear.
GH: Your book traces the connections between the topography of the Pech Valley and the limitations of aircraft. Other than one near the capital city of Kabul, the major U.S. airbases in Afghanistan were located in the flat, sparsely populated desert regions in the southeast, far from the Pech Valley. Planes from these bases could conduct bombing raids, but could not land, forcing the U.S. to rely on helicopters for flights within and near the valley. The mountains on both sides of the valley were so high that the helicopters could not pass over them to travel to other valleys. Could you offer an example or two of a battle in which this limitation was significant?
WM: Yeah, this is a problem that crops up from the very beginning, especially for special operations forces, and it eventually forced them to move away from helicopter-borne raids in this part of the country and rely heavily on drone strikes. The scarcity of landing zones in the mountains made it easier for insurgents to shoot down helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades by keeping watch on clearings that they knew were likely to be used, but the terrain and vegetation themselves brought down more helicopters than the enemy did, especially with the big Chinook helicopters’ rotor blades striking trees as they descended into or ascended from these clearings at night. A Delta Force officer who was one of the first Americans up there in the spring of 2002 remembered being concerned about this the first time he visited, and it was only a few months afterward that an MH-60 Black Hawk of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment lost power in the thin air during a night insertion in the Shigal valley and crashed. A pilot from the 160th who was on that mission — and who went on to participate in the bin Laden raid in Pakistan years later — had this to say about it: “That area is the absolute worst. Down toward Khost, Gardez, Kandahar, the enemy is your problem, but up in Kunar [the province where the Pech is] it was always the terrain.”
Because you could only get a few passengers on a Black Hawk at high altitudes, there was heavy reliance on these twin-rotor Vietnam-era Chinooks, which are huge and tough to get into small clearings. Rotor blade strikes on trees or power problems associated with landing at high altitudes brought down Chinooks and Black Hawks again and again. “In that terrain, the margins for safety and success are really narrow,” is what Gen. Joseph Votel, the special operations commander who made the decision to shift away from helicopter insertions to drone strikes starting in 2011, told me.
GH: The mountains surrounding the Pech Valley are high enough to have heavy snows in winter and even to have glaciers in their upper reaches. You discuss the rich forests supported by the water from the snow and glaciers, and you include a photograph of irrigated terraces which allow villagers to grow crops in the steep terrain. But water can also be a hazard in narrow mountain valleys. In what ways were floods a problem for the U.S. military? Were there ways that local populations coped with floods that the U.S. military was unable to follow?
WM: There were soldiers and Marines who died up there in flash floods or when trying to cross streams and rivers that were swollen with snowmelt in the spring and summer. A Marine lance corporal died that way in the Pech River in the summer of 2005, and a soldier from the 10th Mountain Division drowned in the Korengal the following year. A pair of Navy SEALs drowned during a river crossing in a nearby province in 2008. It was a real risk for foot patrols at certain times of year.
GH: Like many other areas in High Mountain Asia, the Pech Valley is home to a number of ethnic and cultural groups, often speaking different languages, who make their homes at different elevations and who derive their livelihoods from the particular resources in each setting. Are there ways in which this cultural and linguistic diversity presented a challenge to the U.S. military? Did the organization of tours of duty and rotation of personnel impede the establishment of relations with these diverse local populations?
WM: The diversity of languages in and around the Pech was a real problem for the military, which of course was totally reliant on interpreters. On the Pech valley floor, everybody speaks Pashto, and the security forces often speak Dari — those are the two languages U.S. troops were dealing with everywhere. But up in the tributary valleys north and south of the Pech, there were all these other languages, mostly mutually unintelligible and without a written form and spoken nowhere outside that particular valley, that it took a long time for the military to find reliable interpreters for, if it ever did. South of the Pech they had the Pashai languages, in particular the Korengali language in the particularly thorny valley where the most U.S. casualties occurred. It wasn’t until 2006 that U.S. troops found a Korengali interpreter, and even then it wasn’t until they’d been living there several months, and the first guy they did find was a survivor of a family whose other members had been killed in a dispute, so he wasn’t someone they could actually take out on patrols, and as with many informants and locally recruited interpreters, he had a particular angle and a vested interest against certain people in the valley.
North of the Pech, U.S. troops often came away with the impression that they were dealing with a language called Nuristani, but in reality there are five or six surviving Nuristani languages, depending on how you count, one in each of several major valleys, with small pockets in other valleys. In the Watapur Valley, where U.S. troops only ventured episodically, they would sometimes overhear the enemy on the radio speaking in what they assumed was the language of the neighboring Waygal Valley or even the Korengal, and they’d assume it indicated the presence of outside fighters, but really there was a separate language in the upper part of the Watapur Valley that most U.S. commanders working in the area were never aware of.
GH: You dedicate the book to “the interpreters who risked and sometimes lost their lives protecting American soldiers and Marines in the Pech Valley and its tributaries.” Could you comment on the ways in which the interpreters translated, not only languages, but also cultures, customs, and landscapes? Do you see any missed opportunities in drawing on the interpreters’ deep understandings of their homelands?
WM: There were some amazing interpreters, but my impression is that it was the CIA and the special operations forces that leveraged them best as a tool for combatting the lack of institutional memory from constant unit rotation, rather than the infantry platoons living out in the outposts in the tributary valleys, who in some ways were in the greatest need. The best interpreters, including ones who were invaluable resources for me as I was researching the book, tended to eventually get snapped up by the battalion commander or by the CIA base at Asadabad. When I say the best interpreters, I mean not just the ones with the best English or who were native speakers of a niche language like Waygali, but the ones who could add context to conversations, explain subtext and backstory, things like that. The interpreter I worked with on one of my reporting trips to the Pech had also previously interpreted for U.S. forces there, and in addition to speaking Pashto, Dari, and Waygali, he knew a lot of local figures I was interviewing and after we left the room, could offer an independent perspective on things they’d been saying and why they might be saying them, even though he was doing straight translation while we were in the room. In other cases, interpreters told me that they actually didn’t do straight translation — that they softened the messages of blunt or angry U.S. commanders, for instance, when they knew that bluntness, which is an attribute that’s valued among U.S. military leaders, wasn’t going to go over well. “Sometimes I put flowers on the colonel’s sentences so that the people he was talking to wouldn’t hold grudges,” was how one interpreter to a paratroop battalion commander in the Pech put it to me.
This conversation has been edited for length.