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.

US soldiers from 1st Platoon Alpha Company 3-187 3BCT 101 Airborne walk during a patrol in Yosef Khel district of Paktika province on April 3, 2010. The United States has rejected President Hamid Karzai's anti-foreigner outburst as "troubling" and "preposterous," prompting a hurried effort by the Afghan leader to make amends. AFP Photo/Massoud HOSSAINI (Photo credit should read MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
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Yochi J. Dreazen
June 23, 2011, 1:14 p.m.

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.