More Troops Likely for Afghanistan’s East, South

WASHINGTON – With President Barack Obama’s expected announcement today to…

WASHINGTON – 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.

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