By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
KABUL, Nov. 24 -- As the United States and NATO attempt to stamp out an increasingly potent insurgency on the doorstep of the Afghan capital, the senior U.S. Army commander in eastern Afghanistan said he plans to send hundreds of troops to two volatile provinces immediately south of Kabul that have traditionally lacked Western forces.
Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said in an interview this week that a portion of the estimated 3,500 additional U.S. troops expected to arrive in Afghanistan in January will be deployed to Logar and Wardak provinces. Neither has been a major center of U.S. or NATO military activity, even though both provinces are directly adjacent to Kabul and are home to critical transit routes. Schloesser, who spoke at his headquarters at Bagram air base, said he anticipates a rise in clashes with rebel Afghan fighters in Logar and Wardak.
"I would expect from this winter on an increase in violence south of Kabul caused by us, caused by us and the Afghans working together," Schloesser said. "Then, over a period of several months, as we are more successful in separating the enemy from the people and consolidating gains, the violence will come down."
NATO and U.S. military leaders have consistently said that Western forces in Afghanistan are stretched too thin and that more troops are needed to eliminate insurgent havens. Fighters in Wardak and Logar who are allied with veteran Afghan rebel commanders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani have in recent years exploited the absence of any significant Western troop presence in the mountainous region, transforming it into a militant stronghold.
The two provinces have experienced a rash of attacks this year on NATO troops and military supply convoys, as well as a rise in high-profile kidnappings. In June, Taliban insurgents used rocket-propelled grenades and mines to lay an ambush in Wardak that killed three U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter. That month, seven Afghan truck drivers were beheaded after insurgents attacked a convoy of about 50 NATO fuel tankers and supply trucks in Wardak.
In September, the governor of Logar was killed along with his driver and two bodyguards when his vehicle drove over a remote-controlled mine. A month later, insurgents in Wardak shot down a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter. The crew escaped, and the helicopter was recovered after an airstrike killed 12 insurgents.
There have also been a growing number of attacks on foreign civilians in Wardak and Logar. In August, three foreign female aid workers were killed in Logar when Taliban fighters sprayed their vehicles with gunfire on a roadway. Last month, U.S. Special Forces mounted an operation that freed an American engineer who had been held captive in Wardak for two months. And this month, a Canadian journalist was released from Taliban captivity in a cave in Wardak. The stretch of highway through Wardak near the western edge of Logar provides a crucial link between U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan and NATO-led troops in the southern province of Kandahar. Taliban and other rebel fighters have targeted the area heavily, blowing up several bridges this year and mining the road with explosives.
Schloesser, who took command of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan in April, said there are plans to augment the number of Afghan troops in the provinces, apart from to the several hundred U.S. troops who will be added. "That's a challenging area," Schloesser said. "It's one where we've not had a large amount of [NATO] forces ever, and it's one where we do believe there are significant pockets of safe havens for some of the insurgent groups."
Despite stalled progress on security near Kabul, Schloesser said there has been an approximately 15 percent decline in violent clashes with insurgents in the east near the border with Pakistan within the past few weeks. Schloesser, who commands an estimated 19,000 of the 33,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, attributed some of the decline to the onset of winter. But he also cited improved coordination between Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. forces near the border. He said the coordinated effort, which has been dubbed Operation Lionheart, will continue along with other operations as part of a winter offensive.
"None of these things are the thing that's going to be the tipping point. But each and every one of them, as you add them, they are important in terms of adding to overall security," Schloesser said. "Just the ability to work on both sides of this very tough border, to talk to each other, to have complementary operations -- it's encouraging."