COMBAT OUTPOST WILDERNESS, Afghanistan — The Taliban and its allies are plotting a bloody and spectacular end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Foreign fighters are pouring into the eastern part of the country to take on U.S. and allied forces in what will likely be the final fighting season for American troops here.
“The madrassas are emptying" in Pakistan, added Lt. Col. David Hamann, who leads the American Security Force Assistance Advisory Team (SFAAT) at Combat Outpost Matun Hill.
The influx of foreign insurgents ahead of the White House’s 2014 troop withdrawal deadline comes just as the administration is facing mounting public pressure to end the war quickly.
The administration is struggling to decide whether to leave any troops behind after 2014, and has revived the “zero option” postwar plan that would leave no troops in the country post-2014.
The offensive by terrorist groups in a fighting season that continues until snows fill mountain passes this fall suggests they hope to take back the country as swiftly as possible, and will not waste any time waiting for the U.S. to leave.
It also suggests terrorists want to impose as much pain as they can on the U.S. in the months remaining.
While there is always an influx of foreign fighters as part of the annual fighting season, this year looks different, according to Lt. Col. Mohammad Ebrahim, commander of the Afghan army's 6th Kandak.
Pakistani militants in North and South Waziristan are ordering every family in those regions to send all fighting-age males into Afghanistan.
“Every house, every family ... it is [like] an obligation” to send fighters across the border, Ebrahim said in an interview from his headquarters here.
Foreign fighters from Pakistan and elsewhere actually now outnumber the Afghan Taliban fighting for control of his area, according to Ebrahim.
While most of the foreign insurgents come from the volatile Waziristan border areas in Pakistan, U.S. and Afghan intelligence have picked up signs that fighters from as far away as Chechnya have entered the country.
Islamic extremists based in Chechnya were reportedly responsible for radicalizing Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in April.
Lt. Galen Sanchez, the intelligence officer for the province-wide U.S. military adviser team at Forward Operating Base Gardez, argues this year doesn’t look that different from previous years.
He acknowledged more Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens are coming into Afghanistan but said “it is part of the [annual] fighting season flow.”
Additional violence is unlikely to change U.S. plans to drawdown from Afghanistan by the end of next year but could affect the delicate talks about post-2014.
Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed the zero option threat during a contentious meeting earlier this month. A spokesman for Karzai told The New York Times it was a “pressure tactic” by Obama to exert control over the terms of a postwar deal.
This recent show of force is seen as an attempt to delegitimize and undermine the central government in Kabul in the provinces, just as the county is preparing for its presidential elections next April.
The Obama administration plans to pull the final 32,000 American forces out of Afghanistan after the elections, officially ending the U.S. war in the country.
The terrorists’ offensive is already being felt by U.S. forces.
U.S. soldiers from Gunfighter Co., 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, along with Ebrahim’s Afghan forces, are responsible for securing the vital Khost-Gardez Pass, a critical thoroughfare that connects most of the eastern provinces in Afghanistan to Kabul and the country’s center.
The strategic importance of the pass, combined with the push of non-Afghan fighters in the area has resulted in heavy fighting in and around the critical pass.
American forces in the 1st-506th have suffered four casualties since arriving in the country in May.
Early Tuesday, an American soldier was killed and three others were wounded after insurgents fired multiple recoilless rifle rounds at U.S. forces conducting security operations outside Combat Outpost Chamkani.
The Pentagon identified the slain solider as Staff Sgt. Sonny Zimmerman, 25, of Waynesfield, Ohio.
Three other American service members wounded in Tuesday's attack, one critically, are in stable condition.
Afghan troops have also suffered a staggering casualty rate since taking the lead for security operations in the country last month.
Volatile provinces in eastern Afghanistan along the country's border with Pakistan were the last areas to be handed over from U.S. forces to Afghan National Security Forces in June.
As the level of violence ratchets up, American and Afghan forces have been working closely to track the flow of men, weapons and materiel into the country, according to Sanchez.
Sanchez said coalition and Afghan forces are “working really well together in tracking those weapons” and enemy forces coming across the border.
“You really need those eyes on the ground,” he said of the Afghan soldiers and police tracking cross-border incursions of foreign fighters.