Haqqani Network is 'enemy number one' in Afghan east: General Allyn
Major General Daniel Allyn, Commanding General of the First Cavalry Division and Combined Joint-Task Force 1. Photo by Bill Ardolino.
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN: Regional Command East is now arguably the center of gravity for the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) fight to quell the insurgency and transition Afghanistan to stable governance. While the initial phase of the counterinsurgency strategy announced in 2009 focused on pacifying RC South, site of the Pashtun belt and the Taliban's spiritual homeland, attention has shifted to the east as a consequence of media focus, the preplanned evolution of ISAF strategy, and changing conditions on the ground.
RC East covers 14 diverse provinces surrounding Kabul province and the capital within it. While the northern provinces of Bamyan and Panshir are relatively calm and have successfully transitioned to Afghan government control, the contentious provinces along a 450km border with Pakistan - including Paktika, Khost, Paktia, Nangarhar, Nuristan, and the infamous Kunar - remain hotly contested areas subject to ongoing insurgent infiltration from Pakistan. ISAF officers contend that the bulk of this infiltration occurs in the southern provinces of Khost and Paktika, because of the border's easier terrain relative to the north, and the lack of focus by Pakistani forces on this section of the border.
Approximately 32,000 Coalition Forces are responsible for security in the east, along with 68,000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) made up of about 30,000 Afghan National Army, 30,000 Afghan Police (national, uniform, and local), and 8,000 Afghan Border Police. Security operations currently focus primarily on 45 "key terrain districts" of the 160 districts in RC East, most of these centered along population centers and essential economic corridors.
But prioritizing forces effectively in this command is a steep challenge, for several reasons. First, while the terrain varies, much of it is exceptionally forbidding and isolating. A topographic map of the province in RC East headquarters perfectly illustrates what leadership describes as "the tyranny of terrain": the head-snapping peaks and valleys in elevation that riddle the east. And because of the terrain's isolating effect, RC East's estimated population of 7.5 million people is scattered throughout a dizzying number of cities, valleys, villages, and encampments; the five largest population centers vary from 150,000 inhabitants in Jalalabad to only 26,000 in Asadabad. This decentralization presents difficult hurdles for both a resource-limited population-centric counterinsurgency strategy, as well as one focused on improving the capability of Afghan forces while conducting offensive operations against the umbrella of terrorist organizations within the AO.
"Enemy number one" is the Haqqani Network, according to Major General Daniel Allyn, Commanding General of the First Cavalry Division and Combined Joint-Task Force 1 in Bagram, the headquarters component of RC East. But Allyn is quick to point out that the Haqqanis constitute only one particularly dangerous element in a kaleidoscope of ideological insurgents and criminal enterprises causing insecurity in his AO. He counts eight main ideological insurgent groups, among them the Haqqanis, the Taliban centered around Highway 1 (a main supply artery), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami faction. Augmenting these destabilizing elements are four principal "criminal enterprise networks" engaged in hijacking supplies, taxing civilians, illicit drugs, or merely insurgency-for-hire.
This reporter sat down with Major General Allyn for an interview about the trajectory of RC East, the nature of the insurgency, and the execution of his mission. A West Point graduate and Silver Star awardee with commands ranging from infantry to mechanized warfare, many of them in combat zones, Allyn describes his current assignment as one of the most "complex" in his military career.
The Long War Journal: Can you describe to me your area of operations and your mission, from a high-level perspective?
[Major General Allyn conducted an extensive briefing of multiple aspects of RC East, much of it summarized above, before turning to his definition of the mission.]
Major General Daniel Allyn: In terms of what our mission is, I like to spell it out in really four things we must do to achieve the mission we've been given from COM ISAF and COM IJC: first and foremost, we've got to expand the Kabul security Zone, generally defined by [an oblong circle surrounding] the Kabul Bowl. We've expanded this ... probably 30 kilometers down into central Logar and central-eastern Wardak from 1 June to 1 August, basically. So our purpose is to expand the Kabul Security Zone to encompass the majority of Logar, the majority of eastern Wardak, and down as far south as Ghazni City.
In order to accomplish this mission, we must concurrently win the border fight with our Afghan security partners along the border with Pakistan. As I mentioned, the border runs 450 kilometers, we're frankly focused on about the southern 375, in terms of the main crossing points that the insurgents attempt to use. And we have an "attack zone in-depth" that runs from the border all the way to the edge of the Kabul Security Zone, and the purpose is to interdict insurgent infiltration that is trying to get into and disrupt the Kabul Security Zone. It's the number two mission, but it is of equal priority with the first [mission], because you can't [expand security around Kabul] without concurrently [interdicting the border]. Because of the terrain, everything feeds into Wardak and Logar. And one of the reasons that we're having a tough fight in central Logar and Wardak is because that's where they're all trying to get. So one of the metrics of success is are we able to defeat them in Wardak and Logar and prevent them from having any effects in Kabul. [The two provinces are] something of a catcher's mitt in terms of preventing them from getting to their goal [in Kabul].
LWJ: And this is because the terrain makes it easier to cross the borders into these areas ....
MG Allyn: If you look at [the] mountain range that spans Nangarhar, eastern Paktia, and eastern Khost, it is very, very restrictive to try and get up over these 14,000 foot mountains and get into Kabul that way. Olympic athletes can do it, mountain goats can do it, and the very hardy and determined insurgent groups try. But frankly the vast majority try to find the gaps through our lines and lines of the ANSF [along the southern border], or try to run a seam between us and get up into Kabul. And frankly ... they've found it increasingly difficult.
Mission number three, which is really the most important mission for us in the long term, is to develop the Afghan Security Forces' capacity to assume security primacy for all of these missions after we're gone. And obviously our task is to accelerate that development, so that any potential drawdown decision can be made based on the conditions on the ground, and the ability of the ASF, rather than be made on a timeline that someone may have established.
LWJ: Can you give me a frank assessment of the ANSF, breaking them down by police, army, and border [police]?
MG Allyn: First of all, in terms of, if you put yourself in the framework of 2008 Iraq, we're in a somewhat similar place in terms of development. I would say the army is well ahead of the 2008 metric, the police are about where they were in Iraq in 2008. The key difference with them is we are embedded with them, doing combined action operations on about 80-85 percent of our missions. A principle we use is every mission we do is with our Afghan teammates.
The fourth mission that must happen concurrently is we have to effect the smooth transition of the provinces the government of Afghanistan determines to be the next set of provinces and districts to transition to GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] control. We must ensure that all future transition goals that they have can be executed with secure and stable conditions and with a capable Afghan security force that's ready to lead security efforts. One thing to keep in mind is that transition is a process, not an end state, so we will still be available to support in the gaps that they still have, be it in governance, development, or in security.
LWJ: Can you describe the enemy you face in RC East?
MG Allyn: There are eight subnetworks that we're faced up against in terms of the insurgency, and if that's not complicated enough, overlaid on those eight subnetworks there are four criminal patronage networks that add the complexity of corruption and criminality, which in some cases overlaps on insurgent activity. So part of the challenge for an intel/operations effort here is determining what is the motive of the attack that took place. As an example, we have a criminal patronage network that operates in the area of Highway One south of Kabul, and they conduct a number of attacks against private security contractors escorting supplies, and those attacks are largely criminal in nature.
LWJ: They hijack the supplies?
MG Allyn: In some cases it's for theft of supplies, in some cases it's just for payment for conducting an attack, in some cases you have an overlapping of criminal intent that permeates all stakeholders in the process. So being able to determine the motives for attack is not always clear. It's important to understand the complexity that adds to both your attempts at a credible and legitimate government when they overlay on top of governance efforts, and your development efforts when they complicate contracting, trying to prevent the money getting into the wrong hands, and then they overlay on the insurgency, because in some cases they do fund insurgent activities. So, it is complex.
I'll give you an example. We had a judge killed in Laghman a week or so ago, and we initially thought it was part of the insurgents' focus on government of Afghanistan figures, but the governor of Kapisa, who is one of our most positive leaders, said 'Oh no, this had nothing to do with insurgency, this was all about something [the judge] was involved in, without getting into details.' Which was his way of saying 'you don't need to know.' But what he did say was that it was not related to insurgent activity.
The good news is that the Afghan leaders and the Afghan people understand this far better than we do, so our close partnership breeds better understanding of the problem we are up against and how to best deal with it. As an example, this Highway One criminal activity that's going on (attacks on convoys), is a very hard problem for us to solve because its really not a military, pure security solution. So what we're working on is to enable the governors of the affected provinces to take the lead in getting the stakeholders together to get it under control. And we have had some early stages of success with that, albeit in some cases [the criminals] just move their operations further to the south [after Afghan government representatives negotiate with them].
LWJ: So what about the ideological insurgents? Who are your priorities?
MG Allyn: Enemy number one is [the] Haqqani [Network], for obvious reasons. You've done your homework, you understand what a lethal threat they are to the government of Afghanistan. And specifically within Haqqani, there are two subnetworks that we focus on. The number one threat is the National Attack Network [note: this is also called the Kabul Attack Network] within Haqqani. They are focused on destabilizing and preventing the success of the government of Afghanistan. The second most significant threat is the Taliban Highway One Network. Basically that is all the Taliban groups that have as a common goal to use the Highway One access to attack into Kabul. And then the other Haqqani subnetwork is the Haqqani P2K (Paktia, Paktika, and Khost) component of the Haqqani Network, and they're more focused on establishing a stronger stranglehold on those particular areas from whence ... they came.
LWJ: And both of those subnetworks fall under [the leadership] of Siraj Haqqani?
MG Allyn: They do. And what really makes them separate and distinct is the purpose for which they exist. The birthplace of Haqqani is Khost, and this used to be called the Greater Paktia, and the division into Paktia, Paktika, and Khost is a fairly recent development. The National Attack Network is trying to destabilize [Kabul], and I would say the [P2K] Network is sort of the safety valve. If one doesn't achieve its purpose, they still gain more area of operations and control for however this government ends up. And then we have the Commander Nazir Group ... they operate from South Waziristan, and infiltrate through Paktika and into Ghazni. Principally their focus is in Paktika and Eastern Ghazni, but we have seen cases where they are teaming up with elements of the Taliban as well.
LWJ: How do you assess the threat level and strength of actual al Qaeda in RC East?
MG Allyn: We see evidence of occasional al Qaeda ... frankly, our special operations teammates deal with them more frequently than we do. But as an example, we had an operation ("Operation Hammer Down") up in the Watauahpur Valley of northern Kunar and during that operation we killed a number of foreign fighters to include some al Qaeda operators. There was a foreign fighter camp there that we disrupted the operation of, and then over the span of five days [the last week in June] we eliminated about 140 insurgents in a combined operation with Afghan security forces.
LWJ: So you would [describe the incidence] of al Qaeda operators as occasional?
MG Allyn: There are a lot of threat streams that say [al Qaeda] wants to use Nuristan as a base of operations. What we've found is that when the Aghan security forces or us decide to do an operation into Nuristan and northern Kunar, we do. We have freedom of movement and if they choose to fight us, they lose a lot of people. And the government of Afghanistan extends its reach as it determines it needs to.
LWJ: What about the repeated ... estimate that there are 50 - 150 AQ operatives in Afghanistan, do you have any opinion on that?
MG Allyn: I don't. And I would tell you anybody that gives you numbers is lying. There's not even accurate census of the population of Afghans in Afghanistan, so try to tell me how you can be accurate about any insurgent group ....
LWJ: But if you had to characterize in a more general sense the level of AQ in this area you would say ....
MG Allyn: I would say it's very low in RC East in general, and where it is located it is matched with another group where it is temporarily allied or it is operating in a safe haven beyond the reach of Afghan security forces.
LWJ: At the end of July, ISAF and Afghan forces attacked a Haqqani Network encampment in Paktia, killing scores of Haqqani fighters. Given the US forces in the province, how is it possible for them to openly establish an encampment in Paktia?
MG Allyn: Look at these mountains (points to a jagged section of the topographic map). Any one of these mountains has caves, valleys, and has ridgelines, some of which are 12,000 feet and beyond. I'll give you an example: I flew last week down to Orgun, one of the bases for [one of] our battalions. Along [one] particular stretch of ridgelines, I bet I flew over 50 encampments. Now, the vast majority of those were either shepherds with their families or those doing timber cutting. Amongst those, were there one or two who looked out of place? Which one of these doesn't look like the other? And I passed those grids to my [intelligence officer] so we could do some surveillance on it and figure it out.
But the fact of the matter is there are 43,000 square kilometers in RC East, and much of it is unpenetrated by any improved roads. So there is a lot of opportunity for footborne [insurgents] and in many cases hi-lux trucks to traverse relatively rugged terrain. But our job is to try and make it so incredibly difficult for the insurgents that are trying to get through, so that they expend themselves before they get to their target.
LWJ: Nobody likes to talk about attrition, but given these large [insurgent] body counts in some of these raids that you've done - 80 killed here, 110 killed here - do you think that's possible [to attrite the insurgency] or is there an inexhaustible supply of insurgents coming over the border?
MG Allyn: I think anyone that has fought in this environment or fought an insurgency will tell you that shooting your way out of the war is not the complete solution. There has to be pressure applied with offensive operations at the same time you create conditions with the local populace that makes it inhospitable for the insurgency to survive and force the insurgents to consider another solution. And frankly when you look at the tactics the insurgents are using now, they are tactics of a very desperate nature. [For example] the 12-year-old a tribal elder in Kapisa tried to purchase so that he could use her for a suicide attack. That's one of about five or six examples, a couple of which were successful, but others were thwarted by either the [potential bomber] turning themselves in to an Afghan policeman, or the Afghan police or Army preventing it. Increasingly what we see is more and more of the insurgent attacks are unconcerned with the amount of civilian casualties they cause.
LWJ: So you are basically saying there has to be a counterinsurgency [doctrine] solution to win [against] an insurgency, you can't simply kill your way out of it. Obviously the recent announcement and commencement of the drawdown of American forces is probably going to change your strategy from what it might have been otherwise. A Long War Journal analysis documented that a number of forces that had been deployed to southern Afghanistan would have been transferred to the East to complete a second phase of the counterinsurgency strategy. That's no longer going to happen. Without this fresh influx of troops, with such a dispersed population and a terrain issue, how are you going to ... fire on all cylinders in counterinsurgency? Is that even possible?
MG Allyn: It is. And I believe that we're getting after that with the campaign plan that we're executing. As I mentioned, our intent is to create stable conditions along a large swath of the area south of Kabul, where much of that population resides, so that in 2012 we are working on the governance and development of that section south of Kabul. For instance the area north of Kabul, along the Highway Seven corridor, we have been working development as a main effort there for the past year and conditions there are very stable, the economy is flourishing, agriculture is booming.
Now the key for us to be able to do this is to accelerate Afghan security force capacity. That is the task that can be put at risk if there is an increased pace of withdrawal. Because I'm outnumbered two to one by Afghan security forces already. In other words, I have to prioritize who I'm partnered with based on where they are in their development, what mission we're going after in the region they're operating in ... so if the number [of American troops] comes down significantly greater, then partnership becomes a challenge. As long as we can keep those ratios right as we get the Afghan security forces developed; frankly, we are already making significant headway against the insurgency.
LWJ: So you would say you are still attempting a counterinsurgency strategy without the extra forces you had been planning on getting?
MG Allyn: Well, I wouldn't say I was planning on getting [them], I would say the longer term campaign plan called for a shift of the main effort and forces potentially being realigned. But all of that was going to be conditions-based; it still is. The fact of the matter is, if south and southwest accelerate stability conditions down there, there is still the potential that they could push additional resources to the north. But we're planning on accomplishing the mission we've been given with what we have. And we're accelerating every day to achieve those conditions, and most importantly to develop the Afghans to take it over.
LWJ: In 2009, General Flynn, then the ISAF intel chief, said that the Haqqani Network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami faction were "reconcilable." Do you agree with this assessment?
MG Allyn: I think I'm more inclined to agree that the HIG is a higher potential candidate. From what I've seen from Haqqani so far, their ruthless tactics and the way they have senselessly murdered by the hundreds Afghan citizens, it's hard for me to imagine that [reconciliation] is very high on their list right now, particularly as long as they have the safe haven they enjoy in Miram Shah [a community across the border in Pakistan, considered home base for the Haqqani Network].
LWJ: And with HIG, which is notoriously fickle as far as their allegiances go, you think there is more potential, or ....
MG Allyn: I think they would be more willing to dialogue with the government if they saw that, no kidding, the government was going to stand. I'm not saying it's a good solution, I'm not saying it's not very complicated. But from what I see, from what I read, from the [Afghan] partners I dialogue with, HIG is more desirous of being a part of whatever government winds up here, whereas Haqqani wants to bring about the downfall of any form of representative government and restore the Taliban to rule.
LWJ: In 2009-2010, US forces began to pull out of bases in Kunar's Pech Valley. There was some debate over whether the pullout would diminish the insurgency because it was [argued that it is by nature] very local. Do you believe the pullout has resulted in an increase or decrease in insurgent activity in that area?
MG Allyn: Well, I think this recent operation is telling. If there was an increased stranglehold by the insurgents in the Pech River Valley, one would think it would have been very difficult to operate on a single line of communication, on which the enemy knows is your only route of advance; and for them to stop it, and ... the Afghan security forces secured that route, traversed that route, not once but twice with virtually no interdiction by the insurgents. So that says to me that their presence and their control is more enthusiasm than capability.
LWJ: What about the potential for infiltration down into your security bubble around Kabul from Kunar and Nuristan?
MG Allyn: Well, I've read some pretty interesting articles on that ... Doug Olyphant has a pretty good one, if you've read it. I think it's worth taking his perspective, he spent a year here, and frankly, if you look at this terrain and you look at the lack of improved routes, you ask me how easy it is to get from [northern Kunar] to [Kabul].
LWJ: Difficult, but not impossible.
MG Allyn: I'll tell you what my assessment is: when they come out of the mountain passes over here ... we'll kill 'em tired. Now - there is very key terrain north of Kabul, because if you look at how all the valleys feed down from Nuristan and across from Kunar, they intersect with Laghman [province]. So, we will make it very difficult for that intersection to happen.
LWJ: It's recently been reported ... by Stars and Stripes that US forces are being redeployed in the Pech Valley. Is that with Afghan security forces, or ....
MG Allyn: Well, yes that's part of our partnership effort. So, yes, we deployed out there in some numbers in order to partner with the units that conducted the recent Operation Diamondhead. And we already had forces in there, partnered with those [Afghan Army] Kandaks, and we will have forces in there partnered with them until such time as they're ready for independent operations. Frankly the Second Kandak, on this recent mission, grew significantly in its ability. A huge part of this is demonstrating to the Afghan security forces that they're as good as they are; in some cases they don't realize how capable they have become in the last couple of years. So we are enabling them to take the lead and supporting them where they need to achieve success.
LWJ: So you would not characterize it as a [US] redeployment to the area?
MG Allyn: No, it's part of our partnership strategy. It's part of the third mission that I mentioned to you, the acceleration of the development of the Afghan security forces.
LWJ: And did you augment the partnership forces there [in the Pech]?
MG Allyn: We did. Frankly, there was a leadership challenge in the [Afghan Army] kandak and when they replaced the leader that was there ... he did not take them forward as an independent force, so we're going back in to restore that capacity.
LWJ: How important are the sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan's tribal area? Can the east be secured as long as these safe havens remain intact? And what is the long-term prescription for dealing with these redoubts?
MG Allyn: The long-term solution is an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the fact of the matter is that insurgent groups exploit the disputed zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan routinely. They create problems for the Pakistan government in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and they create problems for Afghanistan along the remote areas of its border. So, what we try to focus on is, we have a common enemy. 'We' being Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Coalition Forces that are currently here have a common enemy, and we're trying to encourage teamwork against that common enemy.
But you hit a key point, there are priorities that Pakistan has ... they're focused up in the northern part of their border area and we don't have a lot of forces along the border [along Nuristan and Kunar]. This is extremely rugged terrain, it goes from 12,000 feet down to about 6,000 feet along this particular stretch of the border. And as you know, our presence tends to go inland a bit along the Pech River Valley and the Kunar Valley, so it merges away from the border itself. So you have Afghan border police, and PakMil border police, but there are a lot of folds in the terrain for insurgents to tuck in along the border.
LWJ: So actually it looks like it may be easier for [insurgents] to [stage in northeast Afghanistan] and do cross border raids into Pakistan, than it is to egress south ....
MG Allyn: Well, they do both. They have attacked against border forts along the Afghan side and they have attacked the PakMil ones as well. Frankly, our main area we want to get careful cooperation [with Pakistan] is [south] against Haqqani in Paktika and Khost. And because that's not the number one priority right now of PakMil, that is a point of friction. But their intent is to do complementary operations, our intent is to facilitate those. We have some encouraging tactical level cooperation going on with border flag meetings at the battalion and brigade level and so we're hoping to improve effects against the common enemy of both countries.
LWJ: There have been rare reports of US forces exchanging fire with Pakistani forces along the border, and more common reports of Afghan forces and Pakistani forces firing on each other ....
MG Allyn: That's been principally up in here [points to the northern border around Kunar and Nuristan]. And the reason is because the PakMil is firing against insurgents who have been taking safe haven among populations of Afghan civilians, and in some cases Afghan civilians have been the victims of that fire. Likewise, on the Pakistan side, they claim that some of the insurgent attacks into Pakistan have caused casualties to Pakistani civilians. It's an area of disputed terrain [between the two countries] and the enemy is exploiting it.
LWJ: How is that impacting the security situation up there and is there a lot of friction between the Afghan and Pakistani forces?
MG Allyn: We're trying to improve the coordination and communication. We have communication capability between our units along the border and theirs, so when those conflicts do arise we try to very quickly coordinate through the border coordination centers, as well as direct coordination between units on both sides. And our way going forward is going to be direct communication between Afghans and PakMil and us getting out of the middle of it.
LWJ: I realize this is an ongoing political process, but if [Pakistan] is focused [on the north-eastern border] and you are focused [on the southeastern border], and you can't get to an adequate solution as far as dealing with the sanctuaries across the border, and you do go ahead with the rest of the strategy of enabling the Afghan security forces, what is this going to look like? Just a long fight between the ANSF and ....
MG Allyn: Well, I think the end state is that between the Afghan border police and the Afghan army along the border, that we train them to a level that they can deter insurgent infiltration after we're gone. Now obviously, if Pakistan cooperates and makes it more difficult for those insurgent groups on their side of the border, that's a much easier task to accomplish. But our task is, they [the Afghan security forces] must be capable of doing what we're doing now by 2014. And we're focused on ensuring that they can.
But to say that our priority is down here [along the border of Paktia and Khost] doesn't mean that we aren't cooperating with them [along the border of Kunar and Nuristan]. For example, after we had a meeting with the [Pakistani] 11th Corps, which controls all the PakMil forces along the border in June, within the next several days, they coordinated for us to provide them some overwatch of areas [of the border] as they pushed up against insurgents in this area [along the northern border]. Now, we didn't have anybody cross where they asked us to look, but we looked. And we were postured to move forces if something materialized. And those are the type of complementary operations that we want to routinely do and coordinate with them as we go forward.
LWJ: And how would you rate Pakistan's level of cooperation? I know there has been some friction after the raid on Osama bin Laden ....
MG Allyn: Yeah, it's better than what it was when I got here (in May), but it's not as good as we want it to be. But our mission is to make it better every day, and we're working our darndest to try and do that.
LWJ: What is your overall outlook for this fight, with current force structure, the way things are going, the deadlines? How do you think this is going to wind up? And what is a realistic end state ... that you would define as success?
MG Allyn: I think in terms of our ability to grow the Afghan security force capacity to be able to assume security primacy by 2014, we're in good shape, we're on a glide path to get there, we know what we need to do. What places that at risk is if we don't replace weak [Afghan] leadership, corrupt leadership, both within the security force realm and within the government. If we get those right, then the goals are achievable. Likewise the governance at the center has got to sustain progress and has got to deal with the corruption, because it has a cancerous effect.
LWJ: And how much influence do you have over that?
MG Allyn: Well, we try to put a spotlight on it wherever we see it. And frankly, the senior leaders in the Afghan security forces are absolutely committed to wiping it out. The problem is, as you know, there has been a history of that type of activity, and in some cases it is counterculture. The people expect credible leadership and credible governance.
Note: An incorrect date of Major General Allyn's graduation from West Point was removed from the original version.