U.S. Troops Withdraw From Isolated Afghan Areas The U.S. military is starting to pull its troops from some of Afghanistan's more remote areas and shift them to more populous towns and cities to better separate the Taliban from the Afghan population. But there are concerns that the insurgents could capitalize on the move.
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U.S. Troops Withdraw From Isolated Afghan Areas

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U.S. Troops Withdraw From Isolated Afghan Areas

U.S. Troops Withdraw From Isolated Afghan Areas

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Renee Montagne. The U.S. military is starting to pull its troops from some of the more isolated areas of Afghanistan. The decision is part of a counterinsurgency strategy by General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, but there are concerns that the Taliban could capitalize on the move. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The U.S. military prefers to call General McChrystal's decision to move troops from some of the more remote parts of Afghanistan as a repositioning of forces. McChrystal's strategy places a premium on protecting the population, especially in towns and cities where the Taliban has made inroads, says Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan.

WAYNE SHANKS: General McChrystal has been discussing with his commanders how better to protect the population, not just necessarily hold pieces of land. So we're more concerned with repositioning forces across the country in order to better isolate the insurgents from the population.

NORTHAM: Retired Army General Dan McNeill until last year was the NATO commander in Afghanistan. He says McChrystal's decision is sound because there just aren't enough troops to cover all the areas. McNeill says there's a calculus the U.S. military uses to determine the size of a force that is needed to secure the population in a place like Afghanistan.

DAN MCNEILL: If you apply that calculus, I think the number comes out to be on the high side of 480,000. Keeping in mind that's a combination of indigenous security force and external or international force.

NORTHAM: There's nowhere near that number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, so McChrystal is having to maximize the impact of the number he has. And that means pulling them out of areas where progress has been slow or troops have been bogged down in a stubborn battle with insurgents in isolated areas.

One of those areas is in Nuristan, in the northeast of the country. James Fussell, a retired Army major, has spent several years in the Nuristan area, which he says has rarely been controlled by any Afghan government.

JAMES FUSSELL: It's a very, very rugged terrain. You have elevations above 10,000 feet. You have very sparsely populated remote valley regions. And in some of those valleys, the inhabitants speak a separate language from the rest of their neighbors.

NORTHAM: Fussell says there are no paved road networks in many parts of Nuristan. The U.S. military has built roads in some of the neighboring provinces but faced resistance in Nuristan where many communities want to remain isolated as part of a primary defense mechanism. They don't want strangers coming into their area.

Foreign troops probably could have stayed out of the area altogether except that Nuristan shares a porous border with Pakistan, and there's a vast trail network heavily used by insurgents, says Fussell.

FUSSELL: There have been cases where small elements of U.S. forces - platoon-size, company-size elements - have almost been overrun and would have been overrun if not for the reliance on artillery fire and close air support.

NORTHAM: American military officials say they will continue to keep an eye on the areas they're leaving and will take corrective action if needed. Still, pulling troops from areas such as Nuristan is being seen by some as a retreat. Nate Fick is a former Marine who served time in Afghanistan and is now with the Center for a New American Security.

NATE FICK: Perception matters hugely. And there's a war for a narrative here that's incredibly important.

NORTHAM: Fick says al-Qaida created a myth that it single-handedly pushed the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and may use the same tactic to capitalize on the U.S. pullback from Nuristan and other areas.

FICK: The jihadists have used that narrative as a rhetorical victory, as a recruiting tool to strengthen their own story, and they're going to try to do that again.

NORTHAM: Fick disagrees the pullout of troops is a retreat. He describes it as a triage situation where the U.S. is choosing the least bad option.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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