WASHINGTON President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw some U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year will take soldiers out of the country's restive east, where battles between foreign troops and militants suspected in high-profile attacks increasingly make it the war's focus, a top U.S. commander said on Tuesday.
"We're expecting to contribute a modest amount to the remaining drawdown that has to occur between now and December," U.S. Army Major General Daniel Allyn, who commands about 33,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers in eastern Afghanistan, said in an interview with Reuters.
After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, the White House is moving ahead with plans to withdraw the more than 30,000 extra troops Obama deployed after his 2009 overhaul of U.S. policy.
The Pentagon says about 3,000 troops that comprised part of that troop surge already have been pulled from Afghanistan so far. A total of 10,000 will leave by the end of December and another 23,000 by the close of next summer. There are just under 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now.
Allyn declined to say how many of his soldiers would depart Regional Command East -- a vast region including 14 provinces, a long stretch of poorly protected border with Pakistan and some of the country's most rugged, challenging terrain-- but that it would not include front-line combat soldiers.
"It will not require the loss of any of our fighting strength," he said by phone from Bagram, Afghanistan.
Allyn's boss, the overall Afghanistan commander U.S. Marine General John Allen, told the Wall Street Journal last week that he was considering sending "some number" of combat battalions to eastern Afghanistan as part of a bid to better secure the capital Kabul from militants who cross the Pakistan border.
Those plans do not appear set in stone, however.
The Pentagon says the troop surge has helped bring a modicum of stability to parts of the Taliban's southern heartland and set the conditions for improvements to Afghanistan's weak governance and, hopefully, for convincing the Taliban leadership to consider a peace deal with Kabul.
GROWING HAQQANI INFLUENCE
Even as they tout the situation in places such as Helmand province, U.S. officials are growing more worried about the threat from the Haqqani network, an affiliated militant group they say is based across the border in Pakistan's lawless tribal region.
They blame the Haqqani network for a series of bold attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan, including a September 13 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a recent truck bombing in eastern Wardak province.
U.S. officials believe the Haqqanis are responsible for the bulk of violence in the east and use lawless areas on both sides of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border as they plot attacks in and around Kabul.
Some in Washington now see the Haqqani group -- with its ambition to destabilize Kabul and undermine Afghans' perceptions about the government's ability to keep them safe -- as an even more formidable enemy than the Taliban.
The Haqqani threat crystallizes the Obama administration's dilemma: it wants to leave behind a relatively stable Afghanistan as it shrinks its military footprint but it believes doing so requires more assistance than it is getting from neighboring Pakistan.
Washington's relationship with Islamabad has been strained since a Pentagon accusation linking the embassy attack with Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency.
Allyn said no final decisions had been made about how many, if any, new troops he would receive in the future to fight the Haqqani network and other militants, presumably compensating for troops he provides for this year's drawdown.
The U.S. military leadership in Kabul says it has not decided whether to formally declare the fight in Afghanistan's east the new focus as it seeks to ensure that security gains in the south are not squandered as the U.S. force grows smaller.
"That's clearly the decision for which when the conditions are right I'm sure General Allen will make it," Allyn said. "In the meantime, it's our mission to ensure we make ... use of every resource we have."
A senior NATO official, who declined to be named, said most of those troops withdrawn initially would be what the military calls enablers -- support and logistical troops rather than the frontline fighting soldiers.
The official also said commanders likely would try to shift some military duties to civilian contractors or military personnel located outside of Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul; Editing by Warren Strobel and Bill Trott)