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Need to Know: National Security

Missed Direction

Washington is obsessed with U.S. progress in southern Afghanistan. But the real fight is in the east.


The guns of August: The Pentagon expects a tough summer in eastern regions like Paktika province.(MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images)

EDITOR'S NOTE: A U.S. helicopter was shot down in eastern Afghanistan, according to news reports. Eastern Afghanistan is an area long troubled and only recently getting the full attention of the U.S. military strategy. The following appeared in the June 25, 2011, edition of National Journal.

When President Obama announced the Afghanistan drawdown on June 22, he pointed to progress in the country’s south, a region long controlled by the Taliban and its allies. The White House says that Americans have driven the Taliban out of its former strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, reversing its battlefield momentum and killing many Taliban fighters and leaders. Top U.S. military commanders argue that recent gains there show that the broader war strategy is bearing fruit.


But the real story is not in the south; it’s in the east. Senior officers increasingly believe that the conflict will be decided in the valleys and mountain ranges of eastern Afghanistan, a violent region that abuts some of Pakistan’s most unruly provinces. The Taliban and its allies—especially the Pakistan-based Haqqani network—are waging a campaign of roadside bombings, artillery attacks, and ambushes there; the American death toll has risen sharply. Al-Qaida and the Haqqani network have been unwilling to negotiate with the American or Afghan governments, leading top U.S. commanders to conclude that the war can’t be won without defeating the armed group. “The east is the place that needs to be the next focus of the war, and maybe the last focus of the war,” said Jeffrey Dressler, an expert on the region at the Institute for the Study of War. “It hasn’t gotten remotely enough attention in the past.” While Washington obsesses over southern Afghanistan, it is missing the point.


That may soon change. The military has decided that it needs more troops in the east and is considering the redeployment of several thousand from elsewhere in the country, according to a senior Pentagon official with direct knowledge of the deliberations. Currently, just over 31,000 troops are in eastern Afghanistan, compared with 38,000 in the south. Under some redeployment plans, the official said, the number of troops in the two regions would gradually equalize. In the internal deliberations before Wednesday’s drawdown announcement, Obama signed off on plans to dispatch new special-operations forces to the east, according to another administration official. The mini-surge will take part in interdiction efforts along the border and escalate the U.S.-led offensive against the Haqqani network, the military official said.


Maj. Gen. Dan Allyn, the top American commander in eastern Afghanistan, says that his forces are working to push militants out of their traditional strongholds in Logar and Wardak, key provinces just south of Kabul, while stepping up efforts to monitor the Pakistani border. Afghan and American troops are also trying to expand the so-called Kabul security zone, which surrounds the capital, deeper into nearby provinces such as Laghman and Nangarhar, Allyn said. Much of the area within the zone—including Highway 1, the main road through Kabul, and Highway 7, which connects Kabul to a crucial border crossing—is already under full Afghan control.

But the Haqqani network and the Taliban have stepped up their attacks, killing more than 60 civilians in the past four weeks alone, nearly triple the previous monthly average for the region, and armed groups are trying to mount attacks in and around Kabul, Allyn said. His forces have also noticed a systematic recruitment of child suicide bombers. In one of the deadliest such attacks, a 12-year-old boy detonated himself in a crowded marketplace in Paktika province last month, killing four people, including a high-ranking local official, and wounding a dozen others. More than two dozen would-be child bombers are in Afghan custody; most of them were arrested in eastern Afghanistan, according to a senior Afghan government official. “The enemy is trying very hard to hold on to what few footholds they still retain,” Allyn said. “It’s a tough fight every day.”

Indeed, the U.S. has taken about as many casualties in the east in the past six months as it has in the south—about 70 in each region—even though there are 20 percent fewer troops in the east. In the four weeks since Allyn took command, coalition forces there have suffered 17 fatalities, including a dozen Americans. He says there will be more losses ahead.

Eastern Afghanistan is central to the country’s recent bloody history. Osama bin Laden plotted the September 11 attacks there. When U.S. forces swept into Afghanistan a few months later, al-Qaida’s leaders fled into Pakistan, fueling the violence that has destabilized both countries. The Afghan war began in eastern Afghanistan. With Obama’s decision to start the withdrawal next month, it looks like it will end there, too.


This article appears in the June 25, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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