In southern Afghanistan, American commanders are focused on holding territory taken from the Taliban over the past two fighting seasons. In the Afghan capital, U.S. officials are working to restart peace and reconciliation talks that appear to be going nowhere. And in the east, where violence is up slightly over last year and plans for U.S. reinforcements were scuttled this spring, military commanders are pressing new offensives before troop levels begin to fall. That is where American commanders face their most daunting challenge.
“Our sense of urgency is driven by time and a recognition that we will never have more forces on the ground than we do right now,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, the U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan.
U.S. troop levels, which are at their peak of about 98,000, will shrink by about 30,000 by summer. The coming cuts have led senior military officials to press forward with large-scale operations designed to take on key insurgent strongholds before troop levels decline, U.S. military officials said.
Many of those assaults have focused on shoring up security along the southern approaches to Kabul, where the Haqqani network has sought to expand its presence. The insurgent group has been responsible for many high-profile attacks in the capital.
The military had plans this year to shift some combat forces from the south to the east to help in the battle against Haqqani strongholds, but those plans were shelved because commanders were worried that if they thinned out forces in the south too quickly, they would give up hard-won gains there. “You’ve ended up with about two-thirds of the planned-for uses of the surge,” said a U.S. official in Afghanistan, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the state of the war candidly.
The inability to increase the size of the U.S. force in the east, currently about 30,000 troops, has compelled commanders to make tough choices. They have identified 45 of 160 districts as “key terrain districts” where security and governance must take hold. To further focus limited resources, they have designated 21 of the 45 as “priority” districts.
“If we stabilize the 45 key terrain districts, that directly affects 80 percent of the 7.5 million people in regional command east,” Allyn said.
The focus has meant forgoing some plans that may have made sense a few years earlier. In Paktika province, long a stronghold of the Haqqani network, military commanders recently held off building a string of outposts to help Afghan police forces hold an area where they had crumbled in the past.