The intense U.S. focus on the south has meant that there are about 38,500 troops in that region, compared with 31,000 in eastern Afghanistan. But those in the east have borne a disproportionately high share of casualties in recent months, and some territory held by the Afghan government has fallen back into Taliban hands after U.S. troops pulled out of their small outposts.
In eastern Afghanistan, “we really haven’t focused our energy and efforts,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, NATO’s second-ranking commander in Afghanistan. “Because you can’t do it everywhere at the same time.”
By concentrating more on the east, U.S. military officials hope to confront the cross-border flow of Taliban and Haqqani network fighters who operate from Pakistan’s poorly governed tribal districts. The higher priority would mean more intelligence capabilities, such as surveillance drones, as well as more Afghan soldiers for the region. But commanders are faced with the problem of trying to intensify a fight with fewer American troops, as President Obama begins withdrawing forces next month.
With less combat power, commanders must balance between keeping troop-strength high in the south to hold their gains and shifting more to the problems in the east. In the past six months, 64 U.S. troops have died in the east, compared with 67 in the south, despite the fact that there are 7,500 more troops in the south. Some U.S. planners have made the case for making the east the war’s top priority as soon as this summer, but Rodriguez said that is unlikely to happen.
“It’s the last place we will be fighting,” a senior U.S. military official said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified by name. “And the Afghans will be fighting there in perpetuity. It’s a bad neighborhood.”
The problems in the east start with Pakistan, whose tribal border districts have long provided refuge for Afghan insurgents. Fighters for the Taliban, as well as al-Qaeda and the Pakistani group Lashkar-i-Taiba, can move from Pakistan into places such as Konar province, which has cultivated a toxic mix of fighters in remote mountain valleys. U.S. military commanders recognized last year that they were likely never going to have enough troops to pursue a strategy built around protecting the Afghan population.
Starting in 2006, the United States kept an 800-member battalion in the Pech Valley — enough to secure the ground to pave over a dirt trail into the valley, but not enough to extend the reach of the Afghan government, oversee large construction projects or defeat the Taliban in one of the most violent parts of the country. So a new strategy emerged: The troops withdrew from the valley this spring and began to use mobile units based in Konar and outside Jalalabad, a 45-minute helicopter ride away, to conduct large sweeps against insurgent strongholds every few months. So far, these raids have taken place in the Pech and Konar river valleys, the two major arteries in the province.