US, NATO targets eastern Afghanistan in final fighting season

American and NATO commanders are honing in on a band of Afghan provinces in the east, running along the country's contentious border with Pakistan, International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Deputy Commander British Lt. Gen. Nick Carter said Wednesday. 

The spring fighting season in Afghanistan has gotten off to an early start this year, due to warmer temperatures arriving in the country earlier than expected, Carter told reporters at the Pentagon during a video teleconference from ISAF headquarters in Kabul. 

That said, the U.S. and allied strategy will focus "essentially along the eastern front here and down into Kandahar and into parts of Helmand," including Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces in eastern Afghanistan, according to the ISAF commander. 

Those areas, particularly in Logar, Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces along the Afghan-Pakistan border, "are the areas which are the Pashtun heart of the insurgency and those are the ones that we would expect to be most violent," he said. 

The provinces in eastern Afghanistan are slated to be the last areas officially handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces by this spring, as part of the transition plan agreed to during NATO's annual conference in Chicago last May. 

"Those areas are ones that one needs to pay particular attention to throughout any of the fighting season I've experienced," according to Carter. "And those are the areas that we will focus most of our attention ... because they are the areas that are part of the [final] piece of transition." 

American units in country during this fighting season will take a back seat to ANSF units, who will bear the brunt of the combat operations this spring. 

Roughly 66,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, with half of those forces scheduled to withdraw from the country this spring. 

The final 32,000 American forces remaining in the country will start coming home following the country's presidential election in April 2014 — officially ending America's combat role.

The battle plan for this year's spring campaign, according to Carter, will represent "a refocusing to the ISAF mission" where American and allied security force assistance units will support Afghan forces, rather than take the lead in combat operations.  

This spring's fighting season "is going to see the ANSF being the supported piece of this, and it's going to see us supporting them," Carter said. 

"It's going to see us very much reverting to train, advise, assist, and enable, where appropriate, with combat operations happening either in extremis or certainly on a limited basis," he added. 

U.S. commanders on the ground in eastern Afghanistan are already putting that transition plan into overdrive. 

U.S. troops stationed at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Paktika province have almost completely moved from battlefield "owners to integrators," Army Lt. Col. Scott Thomas said in an interview with The Hill in eastern Afghanistan last November. 

Scott, the deputy commander for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said his forces are now focused on getting elements of the Afghan National Army (ANA) ready to lead the fight against the Taliban and other extremists in the region. 

American commanders have already handed over a total of four U.S. military outposts in Paktika and neighboring Ghazni province to the ANA, according to Scott.  

The brigade combat team, dubbed Task Force Dragon, is preparing to hand over another four to five U.S. bases to Afghan forces by April, he said at the time. 

U.S. and NATO forces have been fairly successful in close off Taliban and Haqqani supply lines running from Pakistan across the Afghan border, Col. Tim Sullivan, deputy commanding officer of Task Force Rakkasan, told The Hill in an interview in Khost province last year. 

As a result, it is taking longer for members of the Taliban and Haqqani Network to get the supplies needed to pull off high-profile attacks against American and Afghan targets. 

That limited supply of weapons and explosives means that after a a single high-profile strike, "you have just [depleted] them for an entire [fighting] season," Sullivan said at the time. 

However, successfully securing and handing over restive provinces like Khost and Paktika to ANSF control will be a tough fight, according to Carter. 

"It's my sense that the insurgency will find it difficult to create traction in that area ... but it's [also] my sense it's the eastern areas, and it's the areas that push up into Kabul which will be the principal threat during the course of this summer," the ISAF commander said.