By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 7:45 PM
U.S. military officials are planning a significant repositioning of troops that would reduce the number of bases in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous valleys and free up American forces to conduct shorter-duration strike missions into enemy havens.
The changes would cut the number of U.S. troops strung out in bases throughout the Pech Valley in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. The U.S. military has maintained a battalion of about 800 troops in the valley since 2006, and they have consistently been involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
In recent months, however, commanders have raised questions about the usefulness of fighting for such a remote area.
"Only about .2 percent of the population in the east is in that valley," said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. "We have to realign our forces to better protect the Afghan people."
U.S. commanders are hoping to complete the shift over the next several months but are still working to win the support of senior Afghan officials. "We are not in total agreement in all of these areas," Campbell said.
Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, who is in Washington for high-level meetings, expressed concern about what would happen if U.S. troops left long-established bases in the Pech Valley.
"It will be difficult for Afghans to hold these areas on their own. The terrain there is very tough," Wardak said in an interview. "I personally fought against the Soviets in that area."
Afghans see the Pech Valley and surrounding Konar province as key terrain because the insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s first gained significant momentum in those areas. "We have to be very careful in how we manage this area," Wardak said.
The shuttering of U.S. bases in the Pech Valley would give Campbell additional troops for strike missions deep into the mountains where the Taliban and other insurgent forces maintain strongholds. Currently, Campbell said, too many of his troops in the valley are tied up guarding small combat outposts. "If your forces are static, it takes away your opportunities and flexibility," he said.
The changes envisioned by Campbell would shift the U.S. mission in some of the more remote and mountainous areas from classic counterinsurgency to the pursuit of concentrations of insurgents. In more built-up regions of eastern Afghanistan, American troops would remain heavily focused on counterinsurgency missions such as safeguarding the population and trying to build governance and commerce.
Wardak's meetings with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this week focused on ensuring that Afghan troops will have what they need to sustain and defend themselves as U.S. forces think out over the coming years. "The priority right now for everyone is transition," Wardak said.
For the first time, he said, the Afghan military had exceeded its modest monthly goals for bringing in recruits from the Pashtun south, where the insurgency is strongest. In January, about 5 percent of the Afghan military's new recruits came from the southern provinces, Wardak said. "We started at a very low level and will have to gradually raise the number," he said.
He expressed hope that the small numbers of officers recruited from the south would be able to tap into tribal networks to bring in more recruits from the region.