Correction to This Article
A map with the continuation of a Sept. 22 Page One article about the war in Afghanistan, depicting population density in the country, did not specify the unit of land area used in the measurement. The population density shown was per square kilometer.

U.S. Plans to Shift Forces to Populated Areas of Afghanistan

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military officer in Afghanistan, has told his commanders to pull forces out of sparsely populated areas where U.S. troops have fought bloody battles with the Taliban for several years and focus them on protecting major Afghan population centers.

But the changes, which amount to a retreat from some areas, have already begun to draw resistance from senior Afghan officials who worry that any pullback from Taliban-held territory will make the weak Afghan government appear even more powerless in the eyes of its people.

Senior U.S. officials said the moves were driven by the realization that some remote regions of Afghanistan, particularly in the Hindu Kush mountains that range through the northeast, were not going to be brought under government control anytime soon. "Personally, I think I am being realistic about this," said Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. "I have more combat power than my predecessors did, but I won't be as spread out. . . . This is all about freeing up some forces so I can get them out more among the people."

The changes are in line with McChrystal's confidential assessment of the war, which urges U.S. and NATO forces to "initially focus on critical high-population areas that are contested or controlled by insurgents."

The conflict between McChrystal's new strategy and the Afghan government has been most pronounced in Nurestan province, a forbidding region bordering Pakistan where U.S. commanders have been readying plans since late last year to pull out their soldiers and shutter outposts. Instead of leaving the area, U.S. commanders have actually been forced to bolster their presence in recent months.

In early July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked senior U.S. officials to dispatch a company of about 100 U.S. soldiers to Barge Matal, a village in the northern half of the province that is home to fewer than 500 people. Taliban insurgents had overrun the community and Karzai was insistent that that U.S. and Afghan forces wrest it back from the enemy. "I don't think anyone in the U.S. military wanted to be up there," said a senior military official who oversees troops fighting in the village.

Senior military officials had hoped to be out of Barge Matal in about a week, but the deployment has stretched on for more than two months as U.S. and Afghan forces have battled Taliban insurgents. Some insurgents seemed to be moving into the area from neighboring Pakistan solely to fight the U.S. troops there, said military officials. At least one U.S. soldier has been killed and several have been wounded.

Although the U.S. finally pulled its troops out of the village this week, the extended deployment to the area has had ripple effects throughout eastern Afghanistan, forcing frustrated U.S. military officials to postpone plans made months earlier to abandon other remote bases.

Because troops are especially vulnerable to ambush when they are closing a base, large numbers of cargo helicopters are needed to quickly pull soldiers and their equipment out of the area. For the last two months, a huge percentage of the U.S. cargo helicopter fleet in eastern Afghanistan has been dedicated to ferrying supplies to soldiers in Barge Matal, where there are few passable roads.

The remote area also has put large demands on the fleet of unmanned surveillance aircraft in Afghanistan, which are needed to help safeguard soldiers as they close outposts in hostile areas.

Most of the U.S. bases that commanders want to shutter in Nurestan were set up in 2004 and 2005 to interdict Taliban and foreign fighters moving through the area from Pakistan. "They made sense as a launching pad to go after the enemy when we were in more of a counterterrorism fight," said Col. Randy George, who oversees U.S. troops in four provinces in eastern Afghanistan. "But we are in a different strategy right now."

McChrystal's new strategy for Afghanistan places a priority on protecting the population and bolstering the Afghan government and its security forces. The soldiers in Nurestan are not well positioned to perform either of those missions.

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