Yochi Dreazen makes the case for focusing on Eastern Afghanistan:
But the real story is not in the south; it’s in the east. Senior officers increasingly believe that the conflict will be decided in the valleys and mountain ranges of eastern Afghanistan, a violent region that abuts some of Pakistan’s most unruly provinces. The Taliban and its allies—especially the Pakistan-based Haqqani network—are waging a campaign of roadside bombings, artillery attacks, and ambushes there; the American death toll has risen sharply. Al-Qaida and the Haqqani network have been unwilling to negotiate with the American or Afghan governments, leading top U.S. commanders to conclude that the war can’t be won without defeating the armed group. “The east is the place that needs to be the next focus of the war, and maybe the last focus of the war,” said Jeffrey Dressler, an expert on the region at the Institute for the Study of War. “It hasn’t gotten remotely enough attention in the past.” While Washington obsesses over southern Afghanistan, it is missing the point.
Bully for all of them, but this is a good four-plus years overdue. From the start of the campaign in the south—especially after General McChrystal said the whole push into Helmand was just a sideshow—longtime Afghanistan watchers have been scratching their heads at the decision to go there. But the story here is deeper than Dreazen and Dressler say: the east has suffered under years of stagnation at the hands of US strategists. That the in-crowd is suddenly realizing they screwed up by obsessing on the backwaters of southern Afghanistan is not a comfort, it is an outrage.
In his analysis (pdf) of the war in the East, Gilles Dorronsoro said something I agree with 100%: “.despite a lack of U.S. interest in these regions, their strategic importance is infinitely greater than that of Helmand or even Kandahar. The importance of the Eastern Triangle is due to its location between the capital and the Pakistani insurgent sanctuaries, and its importance in facilitating the passage of insurgents from Pakistan.”
That is absolutely true, and it didn’t suddenly become true in 2011. It was true in 2007. As has become depressingly typical of what passes for analysis of this war, the insiders are realizing years too late what is really important—a realization made all the more infuriating in light of the condescension and accusations of ignorance to what experts in Afghanistan were saying that accompanied their decision to ignore the east and surge into the south.
That’s not to say a surge into Loya Paktia would have done a thing: as our experience in the south has shown, it would have killed a bunch of people but fundamentally left everything else unresolved. To wit:
The way progress is measured in Afghanistan is very problematic. Look beyond the cliched statements about how many girls are going to school or women are now engaged in the public sphere – good news to an uninformed audience – and you can see a drop off in the number of school and university students, particularly outside the capital, and suspension of significant development projects in all parts of the country.
The escalation in the war not only caused casualties on both sides, but it also resulted in the further militarisation of communities, either through the government’s initiative of arming local militias or via criminal gangs and anti-government forces. This is undoubtedly affecting provision of very basic services such as health, education, agricultural and various socioeconomic development programs…
Today I spoke with Ahmad, a friend from Kunar province. He told me: “The greatest concern for people in this region is the increase in rocket attacks from the Pakistani border side, which continues to take the lives of ordinary villagers over the past months. This is more scary to me than thinking of US military drawdown. We are worried about a direct invasion by Pakistani forces, even as the world is watching.”
There are fundamental problems with the war that just aren’t being dealt with. In the section above you can see how the surge has resulted in a net loss in the social and political factors that will determine long-term success. The highlighted phrases are yet more evidence that the biggest problem facing Afghanistan is most likely not the Taliban, but the continuing escalation of state-on-state combat along the eastern border—the eastern border, mind you, and not the southern border.
Given the current American genius plan to build a 400,000-man Afghan Army, and especially given how many Afghan soldiers say they joined to fight not the Taliban but Pakistan, we should be worrying not whether the Taliban might make a move, but if a fully-transitioned Afghanistan might soon be at war with Pakistan. This is a concern that, again, was around in 2006 when the cross-border fighting had advanced to the stage where Pakistan wanted to fence and mine the Durand Line—the eastern border, mind you, not the southern one.
So let us sit back and contemplate that now, in 2011, as violence spikes once again in eastern Afghanistan, that it is only now that inside-the-Pentagon analysts and their journalists are waking up to the fact that the east is a big mess. And then after we’ve contemplated just how badly they’ve gotten the major questions of this war wrong, why we should trust a single thing they can muster up going forward. And then try not to drink yourself to sleep tonight.