BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan—When the Obama administration declared that the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops sent to assist those already stationed in Afghanistan would be out by next September, it meant that the final front in America’s longest war would be fought along the eastern border with Pakistan. That’s because the extra surge forces concentrated on clearing Taliban insurgents out of their traditional southern strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The plan all along was for the main effort to then shift to Regional Command East (RC East), where U.S. and coalition forces are tasked not only with expanding the security zone around Kabul and mentoring Afghan security forces, but also with blocking the infiltration routes that insurgents use to launch attacks from their safe havens inside Pakistan.
With the clock ticking toward a deadline of Dec. 31, 2014, when NATO forces must finish transferring security responsibilities to their Afghan counterparts, the question remains whether commanders in RC East can accomplish all of those missions with fewer troops than originally anticipated. National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield recently spoke with Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of the Joint Task Force with responsibility for RC East, in his headquarters at Bagram Air Base. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
NJ: What do you consider your primary missions?
Allyn: I have four basic missions. First of all, I need to expand the security zone around Kabul, clearing insurgents out of additional territory that can then be held by Afghan security forces, and we’re making good progress there. Concurrently, I have to disrupt insurgent infiltration along my 450-kilometer border with Pakistan, which we’re doing with a defense in-depth that begins with Afghan Border Police and includes Afghan local police, Afghan national police, and the Afghan army, all partnered with coalition forces. We must succeed at both of those tasks, because frankly, you can’t do one without the other. If I don’t effectively disrupt insurgent infiltration, it’s like a leaky faucet that keeps dripping, making it impossible for me to expand the Kabul security zone.
At the same time, I also have to continue developing Afghan security forces to take the lead and assume security primacy in my region. That is probably my most critical task, because if we fail they won’t be able to hold the territory we’ve cleared, and then all bets are off. Finally, I have to transition those areas identified by the Afghan government to Afghan security control.
NJ: Do you presently have enough forces for all of those missions?
Allyn: Frankly, when people start talking about potentially accelerating an already-aggressive withdrawal schedule, that mission of mentoring Afghan security forces is the one that would be placed at most risk. In RC East coalition forces are already outnumbered 2-to-1 by Afghan security forces [68,000 to 32,000]. So if we start drawing down forces precipitously, I may no longer achieve the necessary gains in terms of mentoring and partnering with Afghan forces, which could lead us to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans based simply on a timeline rather than on the proper conditions being met. At this point we’re still focused on a conditions-based transition of security responsibility.
NJ: When U.S. forces had to recently reoccupy a base in the Pech Valley that it had turned over to Afghan army, it was widely interpreted as a sign that you are rushing Afghan forces into the lead before they are ready. Was that the case?
Allyn: Well, our strategy all along has been to reduce our presence in those areas where the Afghan security forces are capable of assuming control. What happened in the Pech River Valley was that the battalion commander that the Afghans put in charge was not up to the task. So it was a leadership failure, and not the failure of the Afghan security forces writ large. The Afghans replaced that leader and rotated in a different battalion, and we are already starting to reduce our footprint in the Pech Valley again. In the last six months alone, we have replaced 25 negative leaders in RC East, to ensure we have the right people in place. We have found that when the Afghan forces have good leadership, we get good results. And while there have been too many officers promoted into positions of leadership out of political patronage, overall we estimate that less than 10 percent of the leadership in the Afghan army and National Police are below par. It’s slightly higher for the Border Police, but that’s partly because we have partnered with them less.
NJ: What’s your bottom-line assessment of the Afghan security forces?
Allyn: In terms of their ability to fight and defeat the insurgency, they are ready. They need to acquire critical enabling capabilities, however, before they can act independently. We’re only in the beginning stages, for instance, of fielding combat-support battalions that will give the Afghan forces a sustainment capacity. They also need to develop enabling capabilities such as artillery, counter-IED (improvised explosive devices), route clearance, combat engineering, and command-and-control across all the Afghan security forces, military, and police. Against this enemy, however, if you don’t have the ability to deliver fire support, or clear obstacles and IEDs from a route, you are not going to win the day.
NJ: How do you assess the capabilities of the insurgency in your region, in particular a Haqqani network that is headquartered just on the Pakistan side of the border?
Allyn: Frankly, the Haqqani network is a challenge. [Jalaluddin] Haqqani has family and tribal ties in my region, and he enjoys safe haven a half-day’s walk from the border. He is also a ruthless enemy who has probably murdered more Afghan civilians than the rest of the Taliban combined. In the past week alone, the Haqqani network has murdered 20 civilians in RC East, and it has assassination squads working in some of my provinces. They also recently blew up a girls’ school in my region. So has Haqqani intimidated the populace in parts of RC East? Absolutely.
NJ: How do you counter that intimidation?
Allyn: First, you have to contrast an Afghan government that has built 25 new schools in RC East in the past 18 months with a guy who wants to blow them up. That’s pretty much the choice the Afghan people confront. I will also tell you that coalition and Afghan forces have had significant success in terms of capturing or killing senior and mid-level Haqqani commanders in recent operations. Possibly as a result, the last four complex attacks the Haqqani network has tried to execute have been complete failures. Most encouraging, those operations against the Haqqani network were largely led by Afghan security forces, whose confidence has grown as much as their competence. Now, it would obviously be great if the insurgents didn’t enjoy safe haven on the other side of the border, but the Afghan security forces now understand that Haqqani and the other insurgent groups are not 10 feet tall. The Afghan commanders increasingly realize that they can handle this enemy.
NJ: And you remain convinced they will be ready to assume security responsibility for the entire country by the end of 2014?
Allyn: I’m confident that if we don’t hurry too much in drawing down our forces beyond the 68,000 [in place next September], we’ll achieve our mission. I’m not Pollyannaish about this business. I’m a realist. I’ve seen us do this effectively in Iraq, and I believe we’re on the same path here. What we’ve learned about this business is that when you have the right people leading at the senior level, and you keep working to develop capability at the tactical level, at some point those two elements meet in the middle and you achieve a sustainable end state: Afghan security forces that are accountable to their government and their people, and are capable of securing the country against external threats. That's our goal.