The U.S. military will start carrying out more counterterrorism missions against insurgents in eastern Afghanistan and work more closely with Pakistani forces in operations against insurgents along the porous and rugged frontier, the U.S. general commanding the region said.
Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of NATO coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan, said he has been repositioning some of his troops since last August to make them more effective in the region that borders Pakistan. The area has seen an upsurge in violence and is a main route for insurgents infiltrating into Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
The realignment of troops will allow more force to be used against insurgents and shore up security along a key trade route from Pakistan to the Afghan capital.
"As we realign forces it does give me the ability to provide additional forces in other areas," Campbell said in a weekend interview with The Associated Press.
One of the most significant moves is the reduction of U.S. troops in bases along the remote Pech River Valley— a rugged and mountainous area in Kunar province near the Pakistani border that has seen fierce fighting in recent years.
Campbell said the forward operating bases and remote combat outposts in the valley did not provide the flexibility needed to use the forces more effectively.
"You know there are thousands of mountainous isolated valleys out there where we don't have forces and so I can't be everywhere and I just have to prioritize the resources," he said.
Pech and the neighboring Korangal Valley have been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the nearly 10-year-old Afghan war. U.S. troops pulled out of Korangal just over a year ago, saying that it was not strategically important. Forty-two Americans died in Korangal before the troops pulled out.
"I don't want people to think that we are abandoning Pech, we are not doing that. We are going to be able to go in there a lot more," Campbell said. "I am taking forces that were static at positions ... and providing them the flexibility to be able to do (counterterrorism)-type operations."
The move indicates the U.S.-led military coalition will be further stepping up its counter-terror operations — aimed at killing and capturing militants — ahead of the traditional spring fighting season. Such operations allow NATO forces to target senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.
By shifting resources, the military will still be able to follow the other main part of its strategy — counterinsurgency. The goal is to clear the enemy out of a particular territory, then focus on holding and developing it to win over the local Afghan population.
U.S. troops in the Pech River Valley will be replaced by Afghan army or police forces, many of whom have been partnered with American soldiers in the region. The Afghan army has also been reinforcing its troops in the region, Campbell said.
Residents of Pech have mixed feelings about the reductions. Some fear the area will be overrun by the Taliban, while others say fighting will decrease because the insurgents won't have anyone to fight.
"I don't think that the Afghan army can stand against the Taliban there," said Mohammad Rahman Danish, a former chief administrator in the Pech area.
"It is not only Taliban, we have other groups. Right now the Taliban are calm and they are waiting for U.S. forces to leave from the area. They are not attacking, they are not active, they are not showing movement."
He said the lack of U.S. troops could allow Taliban infiltration into the more populous parts of the province and possibly threaten its capital, Asadabad. The Afghan army, he said, should send a significant number of troops to Pech to make up the shortfall.
Campbell said the bases could easily be reinforced with quick reaction forces if necessary.
Although much of the focus has been on combat activity in the south, the eastern part of the country has seen considerable fighting.
"We have had a lot of tactical successes up here," Campbell said. "The number of enemy that have been taken off the battlefield last year compared to the previous year has almost doubled in killed and detained, so the up-tempo has continued to be very high."
Campbell said he expects more fighting with the arrival of spring.
The realignment of forces began gradually in August when the last combat brigade that was part of President Barack Obama's surge of 30,000 additional troops arrived in the region. Since then, Campbell has moved some of his forces around, or changed the focus of some of his combat brigades to make them more effective in disrupting insurgent lines of communications from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Much of that effort has gone into four of the 14 provinces under Campbell's command — Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan.
"The enemy, their goal there probably is to get through to Kabul and we have established really this Kabul security zone there. So part of the insurgent lines of communications that come through that area, we've got to disrupt," Campbell said.
The area is home to a key trade route from the Pakistani city of Peshawar to Kabul which weaves through Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Most of Afghanistan's trade from Pakistan and many of NATO's supplies — including fuel — come down that route.
Shifting the forces "gives me more combat power to disrupt, but at the same time able to contain the insurgents by putting more forces into Kunar near the border." Campbell said. "I can do complimentary operations with Pakistan, something they wanted to do, something we wanted to do."
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.