NANGALAM, Afghanistan » The Americans arrived under cover of night, the static electricity from their helicopter blades casting halos of blue in the pitch black.
It was their first return to the Pech Valley — a rugged swath of eastern Afghanistan so violent they nicknamed it the Valley of Death — since the U.S. military abruptly ended an offensive against the Taliban there in 2011 after taking heavy casualties.
But the Americans, from the 1st Battalion of the 327th Infantry, had not come back to fight. Instead, their visit this summer was a chance to witness something unthinkable two years ago: the Afghan forces they had left in charge of the valley then, and who nobody believed could hold the ground even for weeks, have not just stood — they have had an effect.
The main road leading in the Pech is now drivable, to a point, and rockets no longer rain down constantly on the base the Americans had left the Afghans. Local residents said they felt safer than they had in years.
"Man, you couldn’t walk this road without getting lit up," said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Griffiths, amazed as he and about a dozen soldiers surveyed one area the day after their arrival.
No one is exactly sure how the Afghan forces have managed to make some gains that eluded the Americans for so many years in the Pech Valley. But it presents a sketch portrait of what Afghan-led security might look like in some places after the international military coalition is gone next year.
Interviews with American and Afghan officials and local residents paint the progress as an amalgam of many things: the absence of foreign troops as an irritant, a weakened Taliban and an improved Afghan army. Officials also noted the beginning of de facto agreements in some areas between Afghan soldiers and militants about what is and is not off-limits — not a particularly positive sign, but still an indication of how the battle might change when it is Afghan fighting Afghan.
The insurgents long promised that if Americans left, the violence would subside — a narrative U.S. commanders seized on at the time. The thinking went like this: Foreign fighters drawn to Afghanistan would lose interest, or go elsewhere, like Syria, and locals who were not so much pro-Taliban as anti-outsider would ease their militancy.
That seems to mostly be the case in the Pech now; locals say the insurgents have been more reluctant to attack fellow Muslims, though they are still far from docile.
"When Americans were here and were driving around or patrolling the area, nobody looked at them as friends or liberators," said Hajji Yar Mohammed, a tribal elder in nearby Manogai district. "Everyone in the villages was trying to fight them for the sake of jihad."
The combination of Taliban determination, local hostility and dauntingly rugged terrain made the valley particularly deadly for Americans, who overall lost more than 100 dead during the last offensive here.
When it started in 2009, the Pech offensive was billed as a critical chance to bloody the Taliban in a place they had kept in their grip for years. But by the time the mission was called off, in early 2011, there were open assertions that the valley was not worth the losses being inflicted there. Some U.S. soldiers quietly expressed the view that their Afghan successors were being given a suicide mission.
So the Americans left, and the Afghan forces moved into the outposts the troops left behind. No one gave them much chance.
Two years later, the commander of the U.S. battalion’s overall brigade combat team decided to orchestrate the trip to Pech to show that, instead, the Afghans had made good on American sacrifices.
Whatever amount of success the Afghans have had, however, has not been without at least some American help.
An aggressive campaign of U.S. drone strikes in the Pech over the past year and a half has been instrumental, Afghans and American officials say. They assert that the strikes have devastated the insurgent networks, focusing on al-Qaida leaders and their facilitators. The recent targeted killing of the Nuristan shadow governor, Dost Muhammad Khan, considered one of the top Taliban leaders in the country and a crucial asset for al-Qaida, was a high point of the campaign.
More than U.S. air power, with its looming expiration date next year, is in effect here, though. Analysts and officials also say that the Afghan approach to policing the area has been a strong point. While the Americans consolidated on one main base and a few outposts, the Afghans have set up more than a dozen new outposts and checkpoints farther into the valley. Their aim is focused: securing the main road that the runs through the Pech through Nangalam and keeping it open for the first time in nearly 10 years.
The Afghan National Army has also notably improved in the intervening two years, the visiting Americans noted.
"The ANA we left in this valley are not the ANA here right now," said Sgt. Merle Powell, who, like others, believed the Afghans would be overrun in a matter of weeks after the American departure.
What is less clear is how big a role deals worked out with the insurgents might play in pacifying the area.
While most Afghan officers were reluctant to talk about any such compromises in the Pech Valley, one general — Gen. Nasim Sangin, the executive officer of the 2nd Brigade of the Afghan army’s 201st Corps — briefly discussed a larger example of restrained military ambition, in the nearby Korengal Valley. Sangin said the army had decided not to mount operations there because it lacked the resources and the loss of life would hardly be worth it.
"The Korengal, it is a good place for the insurgents," he said. "It is not a good place for us."
The Americans say they have no evidence of arrangements between the security forces and the insurgents, but recognize that the Afghans may not have the capacity to go after particularly remote areas.
"Some of these places inflict too much pain for too little gain," said Col. J.P. McGee, the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division.
As the visiting Americans continued their foray around their old base in the Pech Valley, they snapped pictures and talked about how much had changed. Sometimes, they stumbled on mementos they had left behind. One soldier plucked a picture of two women in bikinis that U.S. troops had long ago taped to the wall. "I bet this picture has made many an Afghan soldier happy," he told his colleagues.
Capt. Ramone Leon-Guerrero pointed out sites of rocket attacks, noting the damage and offering a few words of context like some grim tour guide. "I had to do crater analysis on every single one," he explained.
Reminders of loss lurked everywhere, but the tone was more nostalgic than sad. Some men even acknowledged they missed it – the action, the camaraderie, the shared struggle.
"I told myself if I got a chance to come back I would," Leon-Guerrero said. "It’s one of those things you always want to look back on. Like going back to your old neighborhood and driving past your old house."