The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley. Wesley Morgan. New York: Random House, 2021.
“Soon America will become just another tribe here. You will be cowards if you leave. And, you will be our enemies if you stay.”
One of the most striking things in the book is found before the prologue even sets the stage for the tale to come. In the front matter, likely skipped by many readers, is a list of recurring characters. The first is Joe Ryan: Ranger Battalion staff officer 2003, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) staff officer 2007, commander 1-327 Infantry 2010-2011, JSOC task force commander 2012, commanding general Train-Advise-Assist Command East 2018-2019. Today in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Joe Ryan wears many hats. He is the deputy chief of staff for operations, Resolute Support Mission; deputy commanding general for operations with U.S. Forces-Afghanistan; and commander of U.S. National Support Element Command-Afghanistan. The recent announcement of his selection to command the storied 25th Infantry Division could mean there is a chance he walks again on that stony ground.
The titular “hardest place” is a deep valley in the Kunar region, neighboring the deadly Korengal and Waygal valleys. It is a bountiful source of timber and valuable minerals, but questionable, according to Morgan, as a strategic foothold. It is the graveyard of an entire Russian division and the site of a massacre of Afghan villagers in 1979. Morgan notes that for much of the U.S. time in Afghanistan, an endless string of service members and intelligence operatives have held that ground along with its sister valleys at great cost. In a regular routine reminiscent of the hill battles in the Vietnam and Korean Wars, soldiers and marines cleared the surrounding hills only to retreat to the base until fire once more rained down requiring another round of trimming the resilient weeds that are the tribal fighters in the valley. Morgan writes that in those brief gaps, America fumbled about with scattershot development projects and night raids, all under an umbrella of air and artillery strikes that rang constantly in the valley.
Morgan opens his well-written tale in the summer of 2010, before taking the reader through the history of the conflict in the Pech valley. The book consists of four sections, the first of which details the origins of the U.S. foothold in 2002-2005, before moving on to periods covering 2006-2010, 2010-2013, and 2013-2017, with an epilogue covering 2018-2020. Bookended by interactions with Joe Ryan, Morgan ultimately concludes that the Pech was, at best, a stalemate between an unclear enemy and a U.S. force lacking consistent, coordinated guidance and intent.
Section one begins with the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. America’s pursuit would lead to those first fateful steps into the Kunar valleys and the establishment of so-called lily pads that no one there could have ever imagined would become permanent fixtures on the valley floor. A foothold more akin to a bear trap had been established in the forested Pech that would outlive the man who first brought the U.S. to the valley. Morgan details the struggles of U.S. intelligence to figure out exactly where their target was and who exactly was shooting at the U.S. forces. Lack of trust in the Americans along with a deep history of shifting loyalties among the tribes made the task nigh impossible. The impotent Operation Winter Strike turned the locals even further against the Americans. Over the next few years, the faces would change or recycle, but no real progress was made in the region.
Section two starts with the next large thrust of U.S. operations in the valley, Operation Mountain Lion, which would leave a new string of U.S. positions. According to Morgan, it was ultimately a failed attempt to rid the region of terrorists. Counterterrorism gave way to counterinsurgency as the buzz word of the day. Morgan covers the notable fights at Restrepo, Ranch House, Blessing and various other inkblots, as the U.S. tried to spread stability through engagement in the region and the elimination of bad actors. Morgan tells how the U.S. cut its losses in Korengal—where the U.S. presence spent most of its time defending itself instead of making progress—and began to focus more on Pech.
Section three opens with then-Lieutenant Colonel Ryan once more in the valley, the U.S. finally free of the Korengal, but still stuck in nearby Pech. America’s clumsiness in the region continued to make enemies of the locals. Joe Ryan lamented the absurdity of American operations while remaining committed to “killing as many insurgents as possible” before the U.S. left. The problem with killing insurgents remains, as it ever was: it just makes more insurgents, and decapitation strikes are rarely effective.[6,7] America tried to pass the baton to Afghans in the Pech, but the handoff was clumsy. The baton was dropped. Americans had to once more slog back into the valley. Morgan notes that the problems of Vietnam rose again as the U.S. tried turning combat over to a partner whom they trained to operate in the exact same manner as themselves, though less effectively, while expecting better results.
Section four begins with America changing course in Afghanistan to an advise and assist role, increasing drone strikes, and the return of Joe Ryan. Find, fix, and finish from the air was replacing boots on the ground, but drones are not a perfect tool. Morgan details how Operation Enduring Freedom was supplanted by Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; the International Security Assistance Force became Operation Resolute Support. By Morgan’s reckoning, the only things that had changed in fifteen years were the names. In fifteen years of slaying dragons, Morgan worries that America’s efforts had only given rise to new and even more vicious ones. Perhaps the sole consolation is that the dragons had begun to turn on one another. In the end, according to Morgan, no one agrees whether terrorists in Afghanistan still pose a risk to the U.S. homeland. America now sues for peace with the warlords they initially went in to depose.
Despite the thousands of American and Afghan lives that ended in the rough valley or left forever changed, the Pech remains.
Morgan’s final assessment is similar to Daniel Bolger’s in Why We Lost: the U.S. never really understood the enemy or what exactly the U.S. was trying to accomplish in the country, leading to a stalemate that belied any real progress. Nineteen years on, the Pech is much as the U.S. found it, though now littered with the detritus of nineteen one-year wars and countless shorter Central Intelligence Agency and Army Ranger efforts that never seemed truly tied together in anything resembling a grand strategy. Despite the thousands of American and Afghan lives that ended in the rough valley or left forever changed, the Pech remains. Morgan highlights the tangled spaghetti of various command structures and conflicting special operations missions that seemed to only multiply as the years dragged on. The continuous cycling of U.S. forces through the region never allowed for an understanding of any durable institutional knowledge about who the U.S. was actually fighting, why, and how. Morgan lauds the courage of the heroes who fought there, painting a vivid human picture of the people on the ground as sincere people in a hard place, trying to do their best in unclear circumstances.
Although the May 1st deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces has come and gone, America’s time in Afghanistan is winding down. “Leave it to the Afghans,” an oft-repeated line, has become the dominant refrain in Washington D.C. As Joe Ryan says in the book, “Sometimes just your presence causes destabilization.” Perhaps with the U.S. presence gone, or reduced to a traditional security cooperation arrangement, Afghanistan will find an equilibrium. President Joe Biden has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. When President Biden was asked recently if U.S. service members would still be in Afghanistan next year, he replied, "I can't picture that being the case." I hope, for Joe Ryan’s sake, he’s right.
Chris Townsend is a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer with 25 years of service in the U.S. Army, and he is a proud member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
 Ted Tally, 12 Strong, directed by Nicolai Fuglsig (2018; United States, Warner Brothers), DVD.
 Rebecca Kheel, “Senators Question Afghanistan Commander Nominee on Turning around 17-year War,” The Hill, June 19, 2018, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/393004-senators-question-afghanistan-commander-nominee-on-turning-around-17-year-war.
 William Cole, “New Commander Named for Schofield Barracks,” Star Advertiser, March 25, 2021, https://www.staradvertiser.com/2021/03/25/breaking-news/new-commander-named-for-schofield-barracks/.
 Edward Girardet, Killing the Cranes (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), 93-95.
 Wesley Morgan, The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley (New York: Random House, 2021), 313.
 Friedrich Hacker, Crusaders, Criminals, Crazies: Terror and Terrorism in our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 148.
 Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla War from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 22.
 Brian Michael Jenkins, The Unchangeable War (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1970), v.
 Shima D. Keene, Lethal and Legal?: The Ethics of Drone Strikes (Carlisle: Army War College, 2015), 34-37.
 Chris Townsend, “Why We Lost – Book Review,” Armchair General, February 10, 2015., http://armchairgeneral.com/why-we-lost-book-review.htm.
 Martin E. Dempsey, America’s Military: A Profession of Arms (Washington D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012), 5-6.
 David M. Rodriguez, “Leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans,” Foreign Affairs 90(5), 2011, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2011-08-19/leaving-afghanistan-afghans.
 Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and Eric Schmitt, “Biden to Withdraw All Combat Troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11,” New York Times, April 13, 2021.
 Allan Smith, “Biden Says it's Unlikely U.S. Withdraws All Troops from Afghanistan by Deadline Set by Trump,” NBC News, March 25, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/joe-biden/biden-says-it-s-unlikely-u-s-withdraws-all-troops-n1262081.