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.
At Combat Outpost Lowell, about 110 U.S. and Afghan troops regularly visit the village of Kamu, which is right outside the base and has approximately 70 men. But the troops aren't able to patrol any of the other villages in the area, some of which are less than two miles away, because the security in the area is too precarious and the terrain surrounding their base is too rugged.
U.S. and Afghan forces at Combat Outpost Keating, also in Nurestan, are even more constrained. The base is about one mile from the Taliban-controlled village of Kamdesh, but more than 100 U.S. and Afghan troops there haven't set foot in the village in more than three months. On rare occasions, the elders from the local shura, or council, will come and discuss reconstruction projects with troops at the outpost.
The troops there could be put to far better use in other regions, said George, who first developed plans to shut down the two outposts in December. "They are protecting themselves in those areas, and the bottom line is that is not enough," he said. "They don't get off the base enough because of what it takes to defend those places and the security situation up there."
The colonel said he would like to use those soldiers to bolster the U.S. force in the Konar River valley, a more populated area where the United States is spending tens of millions of dollars to pave the valley's main thoroughfare. Other soldiers based in Nurestan could be redirected to the outskirts of Jalalabad, one of Afghanistan's largest cities, where the terrain is less rugged and U.S. forces can more easily interact with local leaders and the people.
The shifts are in line with orders from McChrystal and Scaparrotti, who have directed commanders throughout Afghanistan to focus more of their efforts on areas where the United States can show demonstrable progress in the next year. "If you get into the areas where most of the people are, they are relatively secure in those areas and there is great opportunity to help the Afghans with governance and development," Scaparrotti said. Another U.S. official described the move as an effort to get some "quick wins."
U.S. officials are still hopeful that they will be able to close remote outposts throughout the country that no longer make sense. But the reaction from senior Afghan officials to the Taliban takeover of Barge Matal shows that ceding even the most isolated and seemingly unimportant terrain to the Taliban can create political problems for the Afghan government.
"We've learned that there is a political component" to the closures, George said. "A change in strategy is something the Afghans have to understand. You have to socialize it with them."
Instead of simply leaving the outposts, U.S. commanders are increasingly working with local elders in Nurestan to develop plans for residents to provide for their own security with some help from U.S. forces and the Afghan government. In the area around Kamdesh, U.S. military officials recently sent a letter to Mullah Sadiq, an insurgent leader who has been a high-value target for U.S. forces since 2006, asking for his help in developing a security force made up of local men. Although Sadiq has advocated violence against U.S. forces, he has asked his followers not to attack Afghan soldiers or Afghan government officials.
"We ask for your guidance in developing a plan that will improve security and development in Kamdesh," said the letter from Lt. Col. Brad Brown, the senior commander in the area. The push to develop an alliance with Sadiq has the support of local Afghan commanders, though it is unclear whether it has the backing of more senior Afghan officials in Kabul.
The U.S. military has only a few months left to close some of its more remote outposts in mountainous eastern Afghanistan before winter, when such operations become much more logistically complex. Scaparrotti said he is confident that the United States will be able to shutter several bases and reposition forces before winter arrives. But commanders are also hedging their bets. George recently gave orders to the commanders at both the Lowell and Keating bases to prepare their outposts for the cold.