KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition has unleashed a new offensive against one of Afghanistan's most lethal militant networks and plans to ramp up operations next year along the border with Pakistan before the American drawdown gathers steam, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.
Marine Gen. John Allen told The Associated Press that the "high-intensity, sensitive" operation that began in recent days was focused on the Haqqani group, a Pakistan-based militant network with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida. The U.S. has been urging the Pakistanis to clamp down on Haqqani fighters who are attacking Afghan and coalition forces and have been blamed for most of the high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul.
Allen would not discuss details of the operation, which began just days ago, saying only: "Every now and again, one of these organizations that has been able to manifest itself on this side of the border is going to have to get some special attention and that's what's happening now."
In the wide-ranging interview, Allen also told The AP that the process of handing off security to Afghan forces was going to move faster than initially planned. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants the Afghan army and police to be in the lead in protecting and defending the nation by the end of 2014.
Asked about Mullah Mohammad Omar, Allen said the Taliban's one-eyed, reclusive leader should see this moment as his chance to become a part of the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban have said publicly that they are not interested in negotiating a peaceful resolution to the 10-year-old war although Afghan and international officials have opened informal dialogue with some insurgents.
"There are elements that work for him that want to be part of the future of Afghanistan," he said.
Allen said that while most of the first 10,000 American troops that President Barack Obama ordered withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year will be from support units, roughly one-third will be from combat forces — although not from hotspot areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
"Some of the combat forces are going to come out of the north and west," Allen said in his office at the heavily fortified coalition headquarters in Kabul.
Allen said the U.S. would be leaving medical units, mine-clearance troops and special operations and control personnel in the north and west to support German and Italian forces stationed there.
The 10,000 troops in the first drawdown include two National Guard reserve units; one Army infantry battalion from an area of Afghanistan yet to be determined; one Marine infantry battalion deployed in the south; and military personnel working in headquarters operations and support units.
"We are thinning so one person will now do the job of two people or we'll decide that we're not going to do that job anymore," he said, adding that some of the work can be done from the United States.
He acknowledged that some civilian contractors would be hired to pick up the slack, but that "it's not going to be a wholesale replacement."
To satisfy Obama's mandate to withdraw another 23,000 U.S. forces by Sept. 30 of next year, many more combat units will be tapped to leave, he said.
The international military coalition plans to end its combat mission at the end of 2014. Foreign forces still in Afghanistan after that date are to be in training or support roles.
In July, Afghan forces began taking charge of security in seven areas of the country, the first in a six-step transition process. Allen said the plan is now for the transition to be achieved in five steps — the last starting as early as the fall of 2013 instead of late 2013 or early 2014 as had been discussed.
Initially, the logic was to have Afghan security forces take charge in the most peaceful areas first, he said. Afghan and coalition officials and others, however, recently decided that it would be unwise to transfer the most volatile provinces in 2014, especially when the international force's footprint will be shrinking.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker echoed Allen's comment on Sunday during a trip to the western city of Herat — a provincial capital in the first group of areas to start transition.
"The original logic was you go from easy to hard," he told the AP. "But since you're going from a lot of troops to fewer troops, there is also a pretty good case to be made for transitioning the hard areas while you've got the heavy, ready reserve" on the ground.
Karzai is expected to announce the second list of transition sites in coming weeks. Allen said areas being recommended are: parts of Herat province; all of Nimroz and additional parts of Helmand provinces in the south; all or parts of Ghor and Daykundi provinces in central Afghanistan; and some municipalities in the east.
If Karzai approves the recommendations, Afghan forces will be in control or in the process of taking the lead in areas home to 40 to 50 percent of Afghanistan's population, Allen said.
The coalition has focused on routing insurgents and securing population centers in the country. More difficult to control is Afghanistan's long porous border with Pakistan.
Insurgents frequently stage attacks on Afghan and coalition forces from the Pakistani side of the border. The U.S., Karzai and the international coalition have accused Islamabad of giving insurgents, especially the Haqqani network, sanctuary — a claim that Pakistan has denied.
Adm. Mike Mullen, who until recently was the top military officer in the U.S., has claimed that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence service and accused the spy agency of helping the group carry out a recent attack against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
That comment stoked outrage among Pakistani officials and fueled speculation that the U.S. would launch a unilateral raid against the Haqqanis in Pakistan as it did May 2 when it killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
Allen said relations between Washington and Islamabad remain strained but that he was seeing signs of improved Pakistani cooperation. Allen said he and Afghan army chief of staff, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, met just days ago in Pakistan with the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
Kayani pledged to have Pakistani forces take aim at militants firing at coalition troops on the Afghan side of the border.
"That's really different than it's been over the last several months," Allen said. "And, in fact, this week, for the first time — the first time that we've detected it — the Pakistanis actually did fire at an insurgent position that was shooting at us."