The U.S. military is preparing to redeploy troops to eastern Afghanistan as part of a broader effort to shift the main focus of the overall war effort from southern Afghanistan to the country’s violent eastern provinces, a top American general said on Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez said the coming troop movements reflect the gains made in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. and Afghan forces have pushed the Taliban out of several former strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar, and the growing security challenges in the country’s east, where violence has been steadily increasing as insurgents cross the border from neighboring Pakistan to carry out fresh attacks.
“We will end up thinning out down there [in RC-South] and then focusing more and more of our energy in the east,” Rodriguez told reporters at the Pentagon during a videolink from Kabul.
The American decision to make eastern Afghanistan the central front of the broader war, a move first reported by National Journal, comes as the Taliban and its allies from the Haqqani terrorist network wage an unrelenting campaign of roadside bombings, artillery attacks, and ambushes there. The insurgents maintain extensive bases just over the border in Pakistan, giving them safe havens for training their fighters and plotting new attacks.
In the past five weeks, fighters from the Haqqani network and the Taliban have stepped up their attacks against Afghan government and military targets, killing more than 50 Afghani civilians. In one of the deadliest such attacks, a 12-year-old boy wearing a suicide vest detonated himself in a crowded marketplace in Paktika province in May, killing four people, including a high-ranking local Afghani official, and wounding a dozen others.
U.S. forces, meanwhile, have taken about as many casualties in the east in the past six months as they have in the south—about 70 in each region—even though there are 20 percent fewer troops in the east. In the last five weeks, coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan have suffered at least 17 fatalities, including at least a dozen Americans. Officials say there will be more losses ahead.
“It has been a kinetic fight since we arrived here, because the enemy is trying very hard to hold on to what few footholds they still retain,” Maj. Gen. Dan Allyn, the top American commander in eastern Afghanistan, said in a recent interview. “It’s a tough fight every day.”
It’s not yet clear how many troops will be moving east. There are currently just over 31,000 troops in eastern Afghanistan, compared to just over 38,000 in the south. Several plans under active consideration by top U.S. generals in Kabul and the Pentagon would have the number of troops in the two regions gradually equalize, according to an official with direct knowledge of the discussions. Any new troops sent to eastern Afghanistan will take part in interdiction efforts along the border or escalate the U.S.-led offensive against the Haqqani network, the official said.