The al-Qaeda presence in the Pech valley is greater now than when U.S. forces arrived in 2002, and counterterrorism efforts in the region continue. This report looks at U.S. military involvement in the Pech valley and the lessons it offers both the Afghan National Security Forces and the U.S. military. It is derived from interviews with some three hundred Americans and Afghans, including general officers, unit commanders, members of parliament, district and provincial governors, Afghan interpreters and U.S. and Afghan combat veterans. 


  • From 2002 until their withdrawal in 2013, U.S. conventional and special operations forces were involved in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Pech valley system. Today, Afghan government security forces hold the Pech and a tributary valley, the Waygal, where U.S. special operations forces continue to mount an aerial campaign against isolated but potentially threatening al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan elements.
  • U.S. efforts in the Pech have been hampered by separate chains of command and sometimes by conflicting missions of special operations forces engaged in counterterrorism and conventional forces conducting counterinsurgency, reconstruction, and security force assistance.
  • Among the early U.S. missteps was to rely overmuch on a few former mujahideen commanders for manpower and intelligence, one of many ways in which the parallel U.S. military efforts got in each other’s way.
  • The enemy that U.S. units fought in the Pech is not the enemy that counterterrorism forces went there to find, but instead a diverse generation of fighters who have thrived in the region. The al-Qaeda presence there now, though only a small part of the array of insurgent groups, is larger than when U.S. counterterrorism forces arrived in 2002.
  • The U.S. military’s unit rotation system, to the detriment of U.S. efforts, hindered the development of institutional knowledge about areas such as the Pech.
  • U.S. forces have only sometimes worked with Afghan forces in the Pech in the ways most beneficial to both nationalities of troops, have pursued scattershot and often underresourced approaches to advising Afghan forces in the field, and have at times left Afghan officials out of key decisions.
  • Militant groups are likely to challenge Afghan forces in the Pech in some of the same ways they challenged U.S. forces. Concrete steps could be taken to prepare Afghan troops for this and enhance their counterterrorism capability, but would require time.

About this Report

This report focuses on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan’s Pech valley between 2002 and 2013. The research, which the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) helped fund, is based on recorded interviews with approximately three hundred Americans and Afghans with experience of the Pech, including general officers, unit commanders, members of parliament, provincial and district governors, Afghan interpreters to U.S. forces, and U.S. and Afghan combat veterans. Interviews were conducted by phone or in person in the United States, Kabul, and at military bases in the Pech and other areas of eastern Afghanistan.

About the Author

Wesley Morgan, a 2011 graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has reported on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2007, writing for the New York Times, the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera America, and the Long War Journal, and was the principal researcher on Michael R. Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (2012). His own book on the Pech valley is scheduled for publication in 2016.

Related Publications

Negotiations Are the Only Way to End Afghan Conflict, Says Abdullah

Negotiations Are the Only Way to End Afghan Conflict, Says Abdullah

Thursday, June 25, 2020

By: Adam Gallagher

The head of Afghanistan’s new peace council said yesterday that he is optimistic that intra-Afghan talks can start in the coming weeks, but increased levels of violence and details of prisoner releases may slow the start of talks. Chairman Abdullah added that the government’s negotiating team will be inclusive and represent common values in talks with the Taliban. The team “will be diverse and represent all walks of life,” Abdullah said. Afghans and analysts have expressed concern that without an inclusive negotiating team, the country’s hard-won, democratic gains could be compromised for the sake of a deal with the Taliban.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance; Peace Processes

Afghan President Ghani: Freeing Prisoners Can Speed Peace Talks

Afghan President Ghani: Freeing Prisoners Can Speed Peace Talks

Thursday, June 11, 2020

By: USIP Staff

Afghanistan’s government is accelerating its release of thousands of Taliban prisoners as a step toward peace talks, President Ashraf Ghani told an online audience today. The number of prisoners freed should now surpass 3,000, Ghani said, announcing that 2,000 more will be released “within a very short period.” That move, taking the total of freed Taliban fighters to 5,000, would fulfill a central Taliban pre-condition for peace talks. Ghani voiced optimism that a rare “window of opportunity” has opened for peace negotiations, but said further steps are vital to seize the chance to end the nation’s 40-plus years of warfare.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Coronavirus Complicates an Already Dire Situation for Afghan Women

Coronavirus Complicates an Already Dire Situation for Afghan Women

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

By: Belquis Ahmadi

Amid the coronavirus pandemic many countries around the world have reported an alarming increase in domestic violence. Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for measures to address the “horrifying surge in domestic violence” linked to COVID-related lockdowns. In Afghanistan—one of the worst countries in the world for women by almost any metric—the lockdown exacerbates the dire situation many Afghan women already face. As the Afghan peace process inches forward amid a global pandemic, Afghan women’s inclusion and input are critical to combatting COVID and building peace.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Global Health

Bourgeois Jihad: Why Young, Middle-Class Afghans Join the Islamic State

Bourgeois Jihad: Why Young, Middle-Class Afghans Join the Islamic State

Monday, June 1, 2020

By: Borhan Osman

Ever since the Islamic State in Khorasan Province emerged in Afghanistan in 2015, policymakers and security forces have regarded it as an “imported” group that can be defeated militarily. This approach, however, fails to take into account the long-standing and complex historical and sociological factors that make the group’s ideology appealing to young, urban Afghan men and women. Based on interviews with current and former members of ISKP, this report documents the push and pull factors prompting a steady stream of young Afghans to join and support ISKP.

Type: Peaceworks

Violent Extremism

View All Publications