Commander Describes Nature of Eastern Afghanistan Fight

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, 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.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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