U.S. mulls pulling troops from remote Afghan outposts

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 12, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military commander in Afghanistan is considering pulling American troops out of some remote outposts on the country's mountainous eastern border with Pakistan, where local guerrillas are allied with the Taliban and al Qaida, U.S. officials told McClatchy.

Abandoning U.S. forward outposts, and possibly turning them over to Afghan forces, would be a tacit admission that the presence of American troops has fueled insecurity by embroiling them in local feuds and driving some local tribes to align with the Taliban.

"These (outposts) are costly and dangerous and not doing much to bring security to the people or connect the people to their government," said a U.S. official who's familiar with the region. "The terrain is too rugged, the infrastructure and especially roads do not exist and couldn't be built on short order, and the population is too low and too dispersed."

American commanders had hoped that sending more troops to the border area, coupled with a new Pakistani drive against the militants on its side of the border, could deprive al Qaida and the Taliban of a sanctuary and end infiltration from Pakistan.

However, two senior U.S. officials said, there's no sign that the Pakistani military is prepared to move against the militants, and as one of them put it: "There's no point swinging a hammer if there's no anvil there."

Instead, American forces have found themselves tied down in costly clashes with insurgents, and it now may make more sense to move them to more populated areas to bolster security for a redoubled effort to rebuild the war-torn country, U.S. officials said.

Although no final decision has been made, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, is reviewing the idea as he finalizes a new strategy for containing the expanding Taliban-led insurgency nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked McChrystal, who took command in July, to submit the strategy by sometime next month.

Eight U.S. officials in Kabul and Washington who discussed the issue spoke only on the condition of anonymity, because McChrystal and his commanders are still debating it.

Freeing resources that are tied up in outposts in thinly populated areas of eastern Nuristan and Kunar provinces, such as the Korengal and Pech valleys, also would reflect what many American commanders think is a shortage of foreign forces supporting the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

Despite President Barack Obama's decision to boost the American contingent to 68,000 troops by this fall, there's uncertainty about further increases next year given the continued instability in Iraq and public angst over rising casualties in Afghanistan and federal spending at home.

Given these limitations, the officials said, McChrystal wants to focus the troops he has on Afghanistan's population centers.

"It's a concession that we don't have enough troops," said a U.S. military officer at the Pentagon. "It may seem counterintuitive to move the fight closer to population centers, but being farther away hasn't worked."

The American-led counterinsurgency campaign, which includes 32,000 troops from 42 other countries, remains "an economy of force mission," a senior American defense official said.

The U.S. official said that discussions on withdrawing from remote outposts were under way before McChrystal assumed command, driven by the deaths of nine American soldiers in a July 2008 insurgent assault on their base in Wanat, in Nuristan's far eastern Waygal district.

It was the largest loss of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in a single incident since 2005, and American and Afghan troops abandoned the base. A subsequent investigation found that the local police and the district administrator had aided the insurgents.

Abandoning more outposts where U.S. forces have suffered significant casualties would be a boon to the propaganda-savvy Taliban and their patron, al Qaida, which almost certainly would trumpet any redeployment as an American retreat.

It also would shift the war in Afghanistan from fighting al Qaida and other terrorists, which soldiers are trained to do and which the American public continues to support, to protecting the Afghan population and training local forces, which may be harder for the Obama administration to defend in Congress and during next year's congressional elections.

Several U.S. officials, however, said that the advantage gained by redeploying forces probably would outweigh any short-term Taliban propaganda victory.

"The redeployment of troops may be an information tactical setback, but it is thinking and actions like these that may just bring strategic success," a U.S. military official said.

"The bad guys are going to spin everything as a victory for them," the official said. "The way to deal with it is an effective message campaign that pre-emptively explains what is being done and demonstrates that the withdrawal is on our initiative, not theirs."

"Should we withdraw and the bad guys move into the highlands in large numbers, then the challenge will be to contain them there," the official continued. "I'd wager that if we could make significant progress in the areas with higher population concentration, which are easier to defend, then the problem in the remote and inaccessible areas will diminish. The bad guys aren't interested in setting up little Islamic emirates in isolated valleys. They're interested in seizing the reins of power."

Troops redeployed from border areas would be used to bolster security in more populated areas where building support for the Afghan government and its international backers is considered more crucial to defeating the Taliban-led insurgency, the officials said.

Commanders on the ground know they must show some kind of progress in time for next year's elections, which the Obama administration already fears could become a referendum on the Afghan war, much as the 2006 congressional elections were a referendum on the war in Iraq.

McChrystal's new strategy is expected to call for additional increases in American and Afghan forces and a major hike in internationally funded efforts for improving and extending local governance, building roads, schools and clinics, and curbing pervasive corruption and narcotics trafficking.

(Youssef reported from Washington.)

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