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News | Dec. 17, 2010

Commander describes nature of eastern Afghanistan fight


U.S. Army Sgt. James Small, right, helps Spc. Andreas Plaza climb a hill in the Towr Gahr Pass, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Nov. 6, 2010. The soldiers were assigned to 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Dec. 15, 2010) — Terrain and population make the fight against extremists in eastern Afghanistan different from the fights in other parts of the country, the commander of NATO’s Regional Command East said here today.

That doesn’t mean the fight here is tougher, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell told reporters traveling with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it’s different, and Americans need to understand what the difference is and why it matters.

Because the terrain is much harsher in the east, than in the south and southwest regions, the general said, helicopters are a must for mobility. The high mountains and deep valleys complicate the situation. Weather can curb flying operations, and unmanned aircraft cannot see as much or as far in the constricted valleys, he explained.

The enemy in the east also is different, Campbell said.

“In the south, they are fighting mostly Taliban,” he said. Forces in Regional Command East also are fighting the Taliban, but they also must contend with enemy fighters from the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and even al-Qaida, he said.

The tribal structure in the area also is different from that in other parts of the country, Campbell said. The east has far more ethnic differences, a greater number of languages and a larger population, all of which complicate the work of coalition and Afghan forces.

The enemy in the region is a thinking and brutal foe, Campbell said.

“Any time the enemy masses and attacks, they die,” he said. The militants are learning that, he added, and are less likely to try to attack a coalition or Afghan army formation. Now, they disguise themselves as police or soldiers and trigger suicide bombs or car bombs, he said.

Cooperation between special operations forces and regular counterterrorism forces is excellent in the region, the general said, partly because they have worked together constantly since the beginning of operations in Afghanistan.

“The guys that are doing this – the battalion commanders, the brigade commanders, the majors – they’ve done this for 10 years,” Campbell said. “They’ve grown up together and they’ve fought together. Many of the guys in the 101st [Airborne Division] have served over in the special ops side and come back over here. Those relationships are key.”

Civilian casualties are a hot-button issue in Afghanistan. Campbell stressed that the enemy is responsible for more than 90 percent of the civilian casualties in the country.

“They target civilians,” he said. “We don’t do a good job of getting that out.”

Regional Command East encompasses 14 Afghan provinces with 160 districts, and the fight and threat differ even across the command. The provinces in the northern part of the command’s area – Bamyan, Panjshir and Parwan – are very peaceful, and the general has few coalition or Afghan troops there. Afghan police are the government security forces in these provinces, and the provincial reconstruction teams are civilian-led and are able to conduct a more traditional development effort.

The Kabul Security Zone is in the middle of the command. Afghan forces are in the lead in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul, and the security situation is good, Campbell said, adding that French and American troops are working with Afghan forces to expand the security zone around the capital.

For the rest of the region, Campbell said, the command is concentrating personnel and resources in 19 key districts.

“Those are the ones I really hope we can start turning [towards the government],” the general said. “They are the ones I think I can really get at and potentially turn before 1st Cavalry Division comes here in the late May or June time frame. We’re trying to reinforce success.”

The strategy in the region follows the population-centric tenets of counterinsurgency operations, Campbell said. About 40 percent of all Afghans live within Regional Command East’s area. The region also borders Pakistan, and that can lead to problems with a mélange of Afghan terrorist groups using the porous border to train and equip themselves in Pakistan and come back to attack NATO and Afghan forces and civilians, he said.

The command has responsibility for 450 miles of the border with Pakistan. Still, Campbell said, even if he could seal off the border, “I would still have a fight on my hands inside Afghanistan.”

Since mid-June, coalition forces, coalition special operations forces and Afghan forces have detained, killed or wounded more than 3,500 enemy fighters, taking them off the battlefield in Regional Command East, Campbell said.

Some areas in the region see a lot of traditional firepower, the general said. “We’ve dropped over 850 bombs, fired over 28,000 artillery and mortar rounds,” he said.

There will be changes in the command’s footprint in the region, Campbell said. As the strategy has evolved to a more population-centered mission, combat outposts and forward operating bases will change.

“I’ve recommended some that we need to come out of,” the general said. “There are some that we come out of and the [Afghan security forces] come out of. There are some we come out of and the [Afghan forces] stay in. There may be one or two that we may want to build up.”

Most likely to be affected by these changes, Campbell said, are portions of Kunar province that have small populations and are isolated. The general said he envisions moving soldiers in those areas to places where they will be of more use, especially along Highway 1 and Highway 7.

Cooperation with Pakistan is increasing, Campbell said, with three coordination centers stretched along the border. Pakistani officers are in the centers and in the command’s main joint operations center here.

“That’s helping us communicate along the border,” Campbell said. “The Pakistanis have more than 200 observation points along the border. These border coordination centers help us communicate back and forth with these posts.”

The number of Pakistani military along the border also has grown. In 2009, Campbell said, 30,000 Pakistani soldiers were stationed along the border with Afghanistan. Today, that number is 140,000.

“They’ve upped their game, and they are working it hard,” the general said. “Do they have more to do? Yes, but this border is very porous, and terrorists move both ways.”

Pakistani units are coordinating their operations with Regional Command East and are producing results, the general said. A recent coordinated Pakistani operation drove militants over the border, where coalition forces – warned by their Pakistani counterparts – killed or captured more than 150 extremists. More of this kind of cooperation would be better, Campbell said.

Though the fights have been tough and the command has suffered casualties, Campbell said, morale is excellent. Still, he added, some grand, set-piece battle is not the way the war will be won.

“Winning is [defined as] every single day making progress, and every single day the people are gaining more confidence in the [Afghan forces] and in their government,” he said. “If we continue that, … the people will push [the extremists] out.”