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U.S. leaving Afghan valley once thought key

In this November 2010 file photo, Staff Sgt. Dustin C. Campbell (center) points out a possible egress route to Capt. Sean T. Hinrichs (right) and Sgt. Nathan W. English, both with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, during the final phase of Operation Bulldog Bite above the Pech River Valley in Kunar province. U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell

While Libya, Bahrain and other Middle East nations have become embroiled in unrest, stirring concerns about the role of American diplomacy and military force in the region, the U.S. has quietly begun to pull its forces out of a remote area of Afghanistan's Kunar Province, once declared to be key to its military campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Reporting in The New York Times, C.J. Chivers, Alissa J. Rubin and Wesley Morgan write that the withdrawal from the Pech Valley, which began on February 15, demonstrates a change - deploying Western forces in more populated areas while leaving Afghan forces to secure more remote regions.

The move, they write, is a test of the Afghans' military readiness while also protecting Afghan civilians.

According to the Times, at least 103 U.S. soldiers have died in or near the Pech Valley, and many more severely wounded, since the U.S. began its military campaign.

"I don't want the impression we're abandoning the Pech," said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commander for eastern Afghanistan. "I prefer to look at it as realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people."

The withdrawal follows similar American withdrawals from nearby Nuristan Province and the Korangal Valley.

On Thursday, NATO said it was investigating allegations that civilians, not armed insurgents, were killed in a coalition airstrike in the Alasay district of Kapisa province.

A recent U.N. report documented 2,412 conflict-related civilian casualties in the first 10 months of 2010. More than three-quarters of them were caused by militant activity, a 25 percent increase from the same period in 2009, the report said. At the same time, civilian casualties attributed to pro-government forces, including those from the NATO coalition, decreased.

Afghan tribal leaders claim that more than 50 civilians were killed in recent coalition operations in Kunar province. NATO has contested the allegation, saying that video of operations on Feb. 17 - the main event of a more than three-day operation - showed troops targeting and killing dozens of insurgents, not civilians.

In a biweekly address on Afghan radio, President Hamid Karzai boasted of his government's efforts to seek peace with insurgents and criticized the U.S.-led NATO coalition. He claimed that 150 civilians had been killed in recent days by militants as well as international troops who he said were employing an "unsuccessful" war strategy.

"In the past years, we have continually tried to prevent civilian casualties, but the Kunar incident shows this has not been achieved," Karzai said. "The civilian casualties by NATO are continuing."

For more on the Pech Valley withdrawal click here.

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