Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pentagon: More Troops Likely for Afghanistan's East, South

News in Balance

News in Balance:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2009 -- With President Barack Obama's expected announcement today to send more U.S. forces to Afghanistan, a defense official said a portion of the additional troops are likely to reinforce the country's contentious eastern and southern areas.

A chief responsibility of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will be to determine where to apply the added resources if the president authorizes them, a defense official said on background.

"I would think he would want to reinforce some of his forces in the east and the south where the main effort by the Taliban and associated forces have been," the official said of McChrystal. "But it's up to him, based on the types of troops he has and where he needs them first and how he's going to use them."

The distribution of additional troops would factor in the current U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, which comprises about 68,000 troops -- a mixture of combat forces and trainers -- spread throughout, but with the east and south serving as focal points. Troops under NATO's command add a complement of 42,000 troops.

Though violence has risen across the board in recent years in Afghanistan, the bloodshed is most intense in the country's east and south, which have seen more than a two-fold increase in the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Mark Wright said.

Two U.S. Army brigade combat teams, or BCTs, each with about 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers, are operating in Regional Command South -- one of five regional commands in Afghanistan comprising international forces under NATO leadership.

The 2nd Infantry Division's 5th Stryker BCT of Fort Lewis, Wash., operates in eastern and northern Kandahar province and western Zabul province, and the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th BCT of Fort Bragg, N.C., performs advisory roles and training in the region.

Attacks involving IEDs -- the No. 1 killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- is especially rampant in the south, Wright said.

"The Strykers have met a lot of resistance in the Kandahar province," he said of the 5th Stryker BCT, which employs eight-wheeled armored combat vehicles. "Around [Kandahar] city and out farther into the countryside, there have been a lot of IEDs. They've suffered some really significant casualties."

The Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank headed by Kimberly Kagan, a member of McChrystal's assessment team, cites the Taliban under Mullah Mohammed Omar as the main threat to stability in southern Afghanistan.

In July, U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces launched an operation in southern Afghanistan's Helmand River valley, waging war against Taliban operatives in the area.

Currently, some 8,000 Marines of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade of Camp Leujeune, N.C., are responsible for southern and western Helmand province and in the western border province of Farah.

The biggest security threat in eastern Afghanistan, which includes a war-ravaged border area with Pakistan that spans some 450 miles, is the Haqqani network, an insurgent group with ties to al-Qaida, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

"In the east, it's been pretty much a constant fight," said Wright, citing a large battle in the area's Nuristan province in October, where some 18 months earlier a battle raged for control of the Wanat district. "The same province has seen some fairly significant combat in significant numbers – hundreds of Taliban gathered and launching attacks against [U.S.] forces. So it's a pretty intense, ongoing fight there."

Of the four American BCTs engaged in eastern Afghanistan, the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd BCT of Fort Drum, NY, has operated in the Logar and Wardak provinces since January, and the 25th Infantry Division's 4th Airborne BCT of Wahiawa, Hawaii, has been engaged in Paktia, Paktika, and Khowst provinces since March.

In addition, the 4th Infantry Division's 4th BCT of Fort Carson, Colo., deployed to Nuristan, Nangahar, Kunar and Laghman provinces in June, and the 48th BCT of the Georgia National Guard deployed as an advisory brigade to Regional Command East in May.

Even with the sustained focus on the south and east, more troops are likely to deploy there if McChrystal determines those areas to have the biggest needs, the defense official said.

"For whatever forces are authorized by the president, [McChrystal's] going to have to make his decision based on priority of need and where they'd be most useful, where those additional resources can be applied," the official said.

(Report by John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service.)

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