By Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal
KABUL — The collapse of security in the southeastern Afghan province of Khost is highlighting the difficulties of trying to contain the Taliban.
In 2007 and early 2008, troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division waged a long, bloody and seemingly successful campaign to push Taliban fighters and their allies from the Haqqani terrorist network out of Khost. Diplomat Richard Holbrooke, now President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the region, wrote an op-ed calling it “an American success story.”
Today, Khost is one of the most dangerous provinces in Afghanistan. Afghan officials say the number of militant attacks in the province is up at least 31% so far this year.
In early May, teams of suicide bombers killed more than 20 people in Khost city, the provincial capital. In July, heavily armed insurgents disguised in head-to-toe coverings typically worn by women slipped into the city and attacked government installations.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote that regaining control of Khost was the insurgents’ second-biggest goal in the country, after capturing the city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace.
The situation in Khost has given the Taliban space to solidify their alliance with the Haqqani network, an extremist group that has become the Taliban’s most important battlefield partner in the war against the U.S. The network maintains close ties to the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. U.S. officials fear a Haqqani-controlled Khost would quickly become a new haven for al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the network’s leader, said in a rare phone interview that his fighters were working to expand their influence. “Outside of the district centers everything is controlled by our mujahedeen. … The foreign and Afghan forces hardly ever leave their bases and come to the villages,” he said.
Afghan elected officials from Khost agree that the Haqqani group controls much of the province. Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman, declined to comment on operations in the area.
“Khost is in a lot of ways a microcosm for what’s happening in Afghanistan,” said Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency expert in Washington who advises Gen. McChrystal. “A resurgent insurgent group has become more aggressive as U.S. troop levels have remained too low to really protect the population.”
A military official said the U.S. now had roughly 2,400 troops in the province, about double what had been there in previous years. A defense official involved in the current administration debate said he thought the U.S. should ideally deploy at least 1,000 or 2,000 more troops there.
Most violence in the province has been linked to the Haqqani network, which operates out of havens on both sides of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border and has taken responsibility for dozens of attacks around Afghanistan.
The group was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who made his name as a leader of the Islamist uprising against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. More recently, the militants introduced the use of suicide bombings to Afghanistan.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin’s son, said his fighters didn’t want to capture heavily populated areas because the operations would likely result in significant casualties among insurgents and civilians. Still, he made clear his group had no intention of abandoning its focus on Khost. “Every now and then we want to carry out coordinated group attacks,” he said.
An American military official who recently served in eastern Afghanistan said the U.S. had intercepted communications suggesting the Haqqani leadership was closely coordinating its activities in Khost with Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, who is believed to be in Pakistan. “It’s a division of labor, with each group focusing on a different part of Afghanistan,” the official said.
The official said some U.S. intelligence officers suspect that the Haqqani leadership had offered to conquer Khost in exchange for a promise from Mullah Omar that the family would be allowed to rule large swaths of eastern Afghanistan if the armed group eventually retook control of the country.
Afghan officials said insurgents now control many of the districts surrounding Khost city and use them as launching pads for attacks targeting the city and for campaigns designed to intimidate the local population there.
The district of Sabari, north of the city, has long been an insurgent stronghold, and another neighboring district called Musa Khel has recently fallen to insurgents, according to Afghan government officials.
Likewise, government control of three other nearby districts is limited to the district capitals, while the surrounding areas are in the hands of the insurgents.
“No Afghan security forces or government employees can travel in these areas,” said Hanif Shah Hosseini, a parliamentarian from Khost. “The insurgents have a shadow government in all of these areas.”
To combat the threat, Afghan officials are planning to boost the number of security forces around Khost city and near the border, and to organize the “arbakai,” the tribal militias charged with guarding local towns and villages.
“We’ve been able to deploy more border police and Afghan army soldiers than ever before, and we plan to continue to increase the numbers,” said provincial Gov. Hamidullah Qalandari.
Still, it may be too late to prevent insurgents from winning the support of local Afghans, officials say.
“At the beginning everyone supported the Americans,” said Mr. Hosseini, the parliamentarian. “But now a lot of locals don’t believe in a U.S. or government victory anymore. They expect the Americans to leave, so they are casting their support to the Taliban.”