The top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan says his forces have reversed the Taliban's momentum there, clearing the way for the U.S.-led coalition to begin transitioning some provinces to Afghan government control later this year.
In an interview, Maj. Gen. John Campbell said NATO troops had killed or captured more than 3,500 insurgents in eastern Afghanistan since last June, including significant numbers of mid- and low-level militant leaders. The progress has come at a high cost: Campbell's unit, the Army's storied 101st Airborne Division, has lost 103 soldiers in the region.
"We've really thwarted the momentum of the insurgency, and I think it's going the other way," Campbell told National Journal. "Morale is down on the other side and they're losing their leadership. In some areas, they're getting desperate."
Campbell was quick to caution that U.S. forces continue to face a tough fight in the eastern militant stronghold that lies along Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan. He said insurgents still operate freely out of safe havens inside Pakistan, which is largely off-limits to American forces. Most of the enemy fighters are Afghan or Pakistani, but Campbell said his men have also faced off against well-trained Uzbeks, Arabs, and Chechens.
Still, the commander's relatively optimistic assessment about the overall security situation in the east -- which echoes similarly positive reports from senior American military officers in southern Afghanistan -- could make it easier for the Obama administration to meet its self-imposed deadline for beginning to withdraw small numbers of U.S. forces this summer.
Campbell's division has one of the most challenging missions. Some areas of eastern Afghanistan have long been under the de facto control of militants from the Taliban and the Haqqani network, an armed group with close ties to al Qaida. Much of the region is extremely poor, and its harsh terrain -- marked by forbidding mountain ranges and isolated valleys -- means many coalition outposts are in remote areas that can only be reached by air.
Insurgents from multiple factions have begun to work together more closely in recent months, sharing intelligence and in some cases pooling fighters in order to mount bigger attacks on U.S. forces in more remote areas of eastern Afghanistan, senior U.S. officials say.
"It's sort of like a symbiotic relationship where they feed off of each other," Campbell said in the interview. "The enemy has had its own surge, and in many cases they're working with groups they might not have worked with before."
The level of violence in Afghanistan typically declines in the winter months, when cold weather and snow make it difficult for insurgents to resupply their forces, but Campbell said the number of attacks in 2010 was up roughly 20 percent compared to 2009.
In another sign of the intensity of the fighting, Campbell said his forces had fired thousands of artillery rounds at insurgents in recent months and dropped more than 900 bombs. Earlier this fall, a force of more than 120 insurgents crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan and mounted a large-scale attack on a small U.S. outpost called Margah. American forces repelled the attack, killing 92 militants, Campbell said.
"I spent 19 months in Baghdad during the surge," Campbell said. "This is really exponentially more difficult than what I faced in Iraq."
Campbell said he is reviewing the roughly 130 combat outposts and forward operating bases his forces maintain in eastern Afghanistan with an eye towards shuttering some in remote areas while bulking up the U.S. presence in larger population centers and along key roads. He recently shut down a small base in southern Khost Province, and U.S. officials are considering a broader pullback from the violent Pech Valley.
"We can't be everywhere," Campbell said. "We've got to continually re-evaluate why we're in a particular base, and if it doesn't makes sense, we've got to come out of it."
As troops leave areas like the Pech, Campbell plans to deploy more of his forces to 19 key areas he refers to as "priority of effort key terrain districts." They include many of the larger towns and cities of eastern Afghanistan, as well as locations that run along Highways 1 and 7, the region's main paved roads.
If everything goes as planned, Campbell hopes to start transitioning broad swaths of the provinces of Bamiyan, Panjshir, and Parwan to Afghan government control later this year. The three provinces are among the quietest parts of eastern Afghanistan, and have generally been spared the widespread violence that has wracked nearby provinces like Kunar and Paktika.
The progress Campbell and other U.S. commanders see in eastern Afghanistan has exacted a bloody toll. Virtually every night, Campbell and the division's top enlisted soldier visit the main military hospital at their base to give Purple Hearts to wounded soldiers. A few days ago, they visited with a young lieutenant who lost three limbs in an explosion.
"Every one of those makes a huge impact on families back home," Campbell said.
The general has 3-by-5 note cards with names and information about each of his soldiers lost in Afghanistan. He said he used to carry the note cards in his pocket, but the stack has become so thick in recent months that he now carries it in his backpack.