The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan's Pech Valley

Image of The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan's Pech Valley
Release Date: 
March 9, 2021
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“a campaign history from this war that is engaging, insightful, and compelling . . .”

America’s involvement in Afghanistan has entered a second decade. This is a remarkable milestone of this conflict that will not be fully chronicled or understood for several more decades at least. However, this book has provided a more detailed glimpse into America’s longest war by focusing on the eastern provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, and Nangarhar that comprise some of the most formidable terrain in the country.

Beginning with the arrival of the first American intelligence operatives and special operations units in late 2001, the author covers the entire sweep of American military operations, providing a practical analysis of the challenges of conducting a successful nation-building and counter-insurgency campaign.

The eastern part of Afghanistan contains some of the highest mountain ranges in the country, which also forms some of the steepest valleys where tribes have scratched out a living for centuries. The human terrain was at least as formidable as the geographic features, and this harsh environment is where U.S. troops encountered some of the hardest fighting of the last 20 years.

When the first U.S. forces arrived, they were completely unprepared for the convoluted tribal loyalties and warlord machinations to control the region’s trade in natural resources. Hyper-focused on hunting the remnants of Al Qaeda, American operators quickly fell prey to conflicting claims by dubious sources on which tribal leader was or wasn’t hiding Osama bin Laden and his survivors, and these swift conclusions ended up in bombing or attacking tribal leaders, inflaming long-term opposition to the American presence in the region.

The fact that American troops were present in the region for so long allows the author to present narrative experiences from officers that began their Army careers in the region as captains and majors in 2003 or 2004 and returned to the region as colonels and generals in 2018 and beyond. Their reminisces and analysis offers a fascinating glimpse of a military fighting the closest thing to an American ‘forever war.”

As the U.S., focused heavily on the war in Iraq for much of this period, tried to conduct an “economy of force” war by shifting many conventional infantry units to Iraq, some replacement Special Forces units had a modicum of success at keeping the lid on the Taliban in the region by establishing a tentative relationship with local villagers. 

But when U.S. forces returned in force at the end of the decade, sending more combat troops into these narrow valleys to establish tactically vulnerable outposts, the Taliban launched well-coordinated attacks that nearly overran two American bases, Wanat in 2008 and Combat Outpost Keating in 2009. These actions typified the overall challenge the U.S. faced in trying to bring the area under Afghan government control when challenged by a highly independent tribal structure and a porous border with Pakistan.

The author closes out with the rather ironic fact that in the last three or four years, as the U.S. has slowly begun trying to untangle its involvement in the region, the Afghan government and Taliban have become occasional allies against a common enemy, ISIS-Khorasan, the fanatical group trying to seize power in the region while opposing nearly all sides of the Afghan conflict.

At the time of publication, the situation in this region of the country is still uncertain. Although peace talks aimed at some sort of coalition Afghan government continue, and U.S. forces continue withdrawing from the country, the long-term prospects for peace and rebuilding in Afghanistan remain uncertain to say the least.

Based on his embed experience, careful research, and numerous interviews, the author has crafted a campaign history from this war that is engaging, insightful, and compelling.