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Maj. Gen. Campbell Becomes New Commander in Eastern Afghanistan

Lots of things were unclear about U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2008: the precise mission, the resources, the broader national dedication. But one thing wasn’t in doubt: The main area of U.S. focus was in Afghanistan’s Pashtun east, where the primary lines of Taliban infiltration from neighboring Pakistan were. Not that it worked out so well.

Now U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan is comparatively robust — which may be damning with faint praise — and the resources devoted to a war in its ninth year are greater than they’ve ever been. But the focus of that effort is no longer on the east of the country. It’s in the also-Pashtun south, the heartland of the Taliban and the more densely populated region, befitting a strategy that considers popular sentiment to be ultimately decisive.

In the east, troop numbers have grown at a slower pace than in the south, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal has decided to pull back from harder-to-defend areas on the Pakistani border disconnected from significant population centers, as with the U.S. withdrawal from the bloody Korengal Valley earlier this year. Only 4,000 of President Obama’s 30,000 troop increase are devoted to the east.

Whatever the merits of that decision, al-Jazeera has documented insurgent fighters who consider the retrenchment to represent their strategic victory. Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander in Regional Command-East for the past year, hasn’t claimed major victories over the insurgents. “I think that in terms of strength within RC East, I don’t believe that they’re any stronger now than they were a year ago,” he assessed in his final briefing in command of the area earlier this month, adding that he thought his forces now have “greater initiative” in the 14 provinces he’s been responsible for protecting.

All that has placed a number of burdens on the 30,000 NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan. Yesterday, they got a new commander: Maj. Gen. John Campbell of the 101st Airborne Division. And the message during the change-of-command ceremony from Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal’s deputy, was clear: “Keep protecting and supporting the Afghan people.”

It’s an enormous challenge. There are about 10 million Afghans living in the area that Regional Command-East is responsible for securing. While McChrystal in March restricted the circumstances under which U.S. forces can conduct so-called “night raids” — violent intrusions into Afghan homes hunting for insurgents — a quick tally of many of the highest-profile and most inflammatory night raid show they occurred in the east, including Oct. 16 in Ghazni, circa Dec. 27 in Kunar, Feb. 12 in Paktia, March 21 in Wardak and April 28 and May 14 in Nangarhar. It would appear that these sorts of high-intensity missions have, to put it generously, supplemented any switch to a population-protection mission in the east. They’ve also inflamed and alienated many residents.

Reversing that alienation through demonstrated action to provide local security is Campbell’s task for the next year. One asset he’ll be bringing to bear: His counterinsurgency adviser is Doug Ollivant, a retired Army cavalry officer and former member of the Petraeus brain trust in Iraq. Ollivant knows counterinsurgency, but he doesn’t know Afghanistan yet, and the first principle of counterinsurgency is to collect local knowledge. Campbell and Ollivant have a ton to do in RC-East and not a lot of time to do it.

Research assistance for this post was provided by Rachel Hartman.

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