Extortion 17: Did the Battle of Tangi Valley Need to Be Fought?

The Tangi Valley has long been a Taliban stronghold, and the surge made the area a focal point of the Velvet Glove Campaign of the United States miltary forces.

First in 2009 the Department Of Defense posted a story announcing the clearing of the Tangi.  There is no doubt they were proud of the unit that they sent in.  The 10th Mountain Division went in to control the valley.

From the Department of Defense (DOD) report on the Taliban surge in the region:

This mission was launched by the 10th Mountain Division’s Task Force Spartan, which took control of the Wardak and Logar provinces last month. The task force’s deployment tripled the firepower here, where coalition force officials initially did not predict a serious threat developing. But as more intense fighting began in the eastern part of the country, many insurgents took advantage of the two provinces’ small coalition presence and remote districts.

Soldiers from two battalions led the efforts. The 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, which runs coalition operations in the Logar province, moved northwest along the valley road, clearing mostly villages. Gallahue had his battalion’s troops move southeast, clearing the majority of the rural route. The two met near the provincial borders where the 3-71st troops established a permanent coalition force presence in the valley at a combat outpost.

COP Tangi

At the start of the operation, U.S. Special Forces troops, along with Afghan military commandos, descended on the valley in an air assault, looking for some key suspects and weapons caches. Throughout, U.S. F-15 aircraft and Apache attack helicopters flew overhead, providing air support.

Two companies of Afghan National Army soldiers, partnered with their French mentoring company, moved side by side with U.S. forces. Afghan National Police led the searches of suspects’ homes.

For three days, soldiers cleared the route, walking the road and through the villages and fields. It was slow, tedious work as, step by step, anything found suspicious was reported up the chain, and nobody moved further until any threat was cleared.

Three days to clear the entire Tangi Valley and the establishment of Command Outpost Tangi (COP)  This was March of 2009 and if you read the article you would be led to believe the Tangi Valley was no longer a Taliban hot spot but a peaceful farming area in the control of the  10th Mountain.  But it was a short lived victory. Paradise is not easily won nor are the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Just one year later this is how Stars and Stripes reported the situation in the Tangi Valley:

Since arriving in December, soldiers in this district’s rugged, deadly Tangi Valley haven’t fired a shot. They haven’t kicked in a door, haven’t searched a house. The two Afghans they detained were released two days later.

They take off their helmets to talk to villagers, shake hands, sit down for tea with them, write down their concerns.

In short, they’re carrying out exactly the kind of velvet-glove counterinsurgency operations Gen. Stanley McChrystal is banking on to turn the tide of a war badly adrift more than eight years after it began.

But it’s not working.

As U.S. forces flood southern Afghanistan with troops, backing up the soft touch of counterinsurgency with brute force in Taliban strongholds like Marjah, troops in eastern regions such as Tangi Valley find themselves with the unenviable task of trying to persuade villagers to disavow the Taliban without having the forces to offer lasting security.

How exactly does a three day operation in 2009 turn into a love festival with the people one year later?  But the story gets more interesting.  We have taken a friendly posture toward the locals but the Taliban has a different method.

From the military periodical, “Stars and Stripes:”

Villagers in this volatile region, where insurgent fighters pour in from across the Pakistan border each spring, express an almost universal sentiment about the soldiers: fear.

“We are scared to come out of our houses at night,” said one Tangi Valley shopkeeper. “We’re worried you will think we’re Taliban, and the Taliban will think we’re spies for the U.S.”

Another chimes in with an oft-repeated phrase alluding to reprisals by the Taliban for talking to coalition troops.

“When you guys come here, you cause a lot of problems after you leave,” he said.

First Lt. Michael Finch tells the men he wants to help, but that he needs their assistance in getting rid of the Taliban that threaten the villagers.

“If I help you, I will no longer have a head,” the shopkeeper said.

AC130U SpookyFear is the Taliban’s greatest tool and they use it effectively.  It he situation continued to worsen for the people in the Tangi and eventually the Special Operations unit flying into the valley on 6 August 2011.  Early in 2011 the Army decided that COP Tangi was no longer a strategic position for our troops and transitioned the base over to the Afghan forces.

From the Army website:

WARDAK, Afghanistan, April 11, 2011 — Task Force Warrior Soldiers made final preparations to transition Combat Outpost Tangi to Afghan National Security Forces, April 8.

Lt. Col. Thomas S. Rickard, commander of TF Warrior, toured the Combat Outpost, or COP, and discussed details of the transition with Sayed Abad district Afghan National Police Chief Abdul Ghafoor Aziz.

The eventual reduction of U.S. forces and the vast area of Afghanistan within his unit’s area of operations led Rickard to realign his Soldiers to reach the most Afghan people.

“As we lose U.S. personnel, we have to concentrate on the greater populations,” said Rickard.

Although U.S. troops assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, will no longer run the outpost, there will still be a coalition presence.

“U.S. forces will still patrol the area,” said Rickard. “We are going to continue to hunt insurgents in Tangi and prevent them from having a safe haven.”

Leading up to the transfer, Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, and U.S. forces secured the route to COP Tangi during Operation Tangi Smash. TF Warrior Soldiers patrolled the route, and ANSF manned checkpoints and searched homes.

“As a result of Operation Tangi Smash, the [Afghan National Police] shut down a HME (homemade explosives) lab and seized nearly 24 kilograms of marijuana,” said Rickard. “The Afghan National Police have already demonstrated their resolve by placing permanent check points at each end of the valley.”

The Army turned over COP Tangi to the Afghan’s in April 2011  only four short months later the Ranger firefight and the downing of Extortion 17 would haunt the nation.  But if the Afghan’s controlled the entry points and we has seemingly cleared the valley how would a high profile Taliban get into the valley and cause a need for such a mission?

The answer is simple.  The Afghan’s never took control of COP Tangi or if they did they did not stay long.

The Taliban took over the outpost, as can be seen in the video below.

This video can be found at the Long War Journal with a summary of events:

A US military officer who wished not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue told The Long War Journal that the base in the Taliban propaganda video is Combat Outpost Tangi, which was transitioned to Afghan forces in April. Afghan troops later abandoned the outpost, the officer said.

Wardak province has been the scene of controversy over the past two months. The Taliban are in control of the Tangi Valley following the withdrawal of US forces from a combat outpost this spring.

You can view the site here.

Mike-Strange-USN

The video was shot within weeks of the US leaving the Command Outpost.  There obviously was never control of the region and for our Generals to say we need to focus on the most populous areas?  There is little place for the Taliban to hide in the cities.  It is the mountains and the Pakistan border where the action is occurring.

It was in this atmosphere that the Battle of August 6 2011 was born.  The Afghan’s not stepping forward to control their own country and a US military willing to play footsies with the people to make friends.  All the while the citizens of Afghanistan live in fear of being beheaded by the Taliban. How do you win the hearts and minds?  Eliminate the threat.  We are not doing that.

The reality of Afghanistan is if we remove our presence from an area the Taliban move right back in and terrorize the civilians and kill anyone suspected of helping the US effort for peace in that country.

Between the velvet glove approach and it’s restrictive rules of engagement, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people will be lost to bad policy and the lack of destroying our enemies and the enemies of freedom.  38 men died in one helicopter crash on August 6, 2011 and from everything you can see here it did not need to happen.  The families of these men still have questions.  Demand answers for them.