04 December 2010

Return to the Korengal

An Afghan National Army soldier from 2nd Company, 2nd Infantry Battalion, traverses the mountainside along with soldiers assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Bulldog, during a joint clearing operation Nov. 24 in the Pech River Valley in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. Mark Burrel.

"I stood in the Korengal with 1,000 of my guys."

- Col. Drew Poppas, commander of the 1st BCT and Task Force Bastogne

They probably thought we'd left for good. But we've got unfinished business there.

Poppas sat down with The Leaf-Chronicle while home on mid-tour leave. He shared what his task force has done in the eight months since being deployed to an area that he calls the biggest front in the war against the Taliban, al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters. It's the same area where Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta earned his Medal of Honor and the home of the Korengal Valley — once referred to as the "Valley of Death."

"This is the fight they wanted here," he said. "This is the infantry fight 101."

That fight sometimes brings the 1st BCT soldiers within 50 feet of their enemies, close enough to lob grenades and watch the fighters come at them before "destroying them in detail."

Poppas is aware that many of the headlines coming out of his area of operation have been negative. Six soldiers died in one operation two weeks ago, and another five were killed in a massive IED strike in June.

However, he said his task force of nine battalion-sized elements combined — a force more than twice the size of his own brigade — is making progress, both in security and on the governance and economic sides of the fight.

"I stood in the Korengal with 1,000 of my guys," Poppas said, describing a recent days-long mission to root out enemy fighters from the 6-mile by 1-mile valley once held by the Taliban and al-Qaida. He said the valley is now a safer place because of what his soldiers have done.

"We're taking away the mystiques of these valleys," he said.

The strategy Poppas used was a simple one. The Taliban like to fight from advantageous high ground, so knowing this, Poppas' soldiers took the high ground, came in on the floor of the valley and backfilled behind. The Taliban probably thought the Americans would be gone in a matter of days, but they weren't. The Americans stayed and waited for the Taliban to return, killing them on sight.

Poppas called it "the classic definition of defeat."

Since then, the local villagers have watched what the Americans' efforts to eradicate the Taliban, something the villagers could not have done on their own.

"(The Taliban) don't give anything back. They just take," Poppas said.

Now the villagers have formed an armed resistance against the once forceful and embedded Taliban fighters. Anti-Taliban sentiment is growing, too.

"The whole Pech River valley," Poppas said, referring to how far that sentiment has spread.

As that progress was made, the headlines in the U.S. were about six soldiers who died in the fighting. Poppas said they did not die in vain, though. Those men died "to change the dynamic of the entire (Kunar) province," he said.

Read the rest of Jake Lowary's interview with Col. Poppas in The Leaf-Chronicle.

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