U.S. Troops Beginning to Shift Responsibility to Afghan Forces

Pentagon officials told lawmakers Tuesday they are happy about the progress Western forces are making, and expect Afghan forces to grow as a withdrawal date approaches.

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How the decade-old mission in Afghanistan ends is more directly tied to the quality and number of Afghan forces than how long U.S. troops stay there, senior Pentagon officials said Tuesday. [Photo Gallery: Afghans Mourn After Rogue Attack.]

Lawmakers pressed officials about everything from beating down Taliban forces, to securing key cities and villages, to thwarting the country's opium industry to detaining battlefield captives. And each time, the Pentagon officials repeatedly pointed to the abilities of and plans for Afghans to take the lead on each issue.

Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, drew a direct correlation between the Taliban's military and the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). As the latter gets larger and gains combat prowess, the former shrinks, Allen said.

Taliban fighters simply do not want to fight their countrymen, the Marine Corps general told a House panel. [U.S. Nukes Face Millions of Cyber Attacks Daily]

Not too long ago, only 600 Taliban fighters had formally rejected the extremist group and rejoined Afghanistan society. That figure now stands at 3,600, and another "400 are in the pipeline," Allen said.

That upward trend is also a reflection of improving economic conditions in those former Taliban home provinces, Allen said.

Texas Republican Mac Thornberry pressed Allen and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller about whether NATO forces could maintain gains in southern Afghanistan while doing more in the east.

Allen responded to Thornberry, the House Armed Services Committee vice chairman, "We're going to need to ensure the ANSF are able to consolidate the human turf." That "human turf" is Allen's description for southern Afghanistan, which he dubbed the Taliban's "spiritual home."

The NATO commander acknowledged U.S. and Western forces will have to conduct counterinsurgency operations in eastern Afghanistan "for some time" because Taliban and remaining al Qaeda elements enjoy "safe havens" across the border in western Pakistan.[U.S. News Debate Club: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

But Allen made clear Afghan forces will also play a big role in the coming increased focus in the east.

At numerous points during the nearly 11-year-old conflict, American commanders have described what U.S. forces were doing to combat Taliban forces. But on Tuesday, Allen and Miller said every strategic decision now focuses on what Afghan forces can do, and howWestern troops can be of assistance.

U.S. and NATO officials work closely with Afghan leaders as they determine which areas can be handed over to indigenous security forces, they said.

Allen said plans are "on pace" to hand over new areas to Afghan forces, with U.S. and NATO troops moving to a supporting role.

Thornberry cautioned the Pentagon officials against tearing ahead with building a massive--but incapable-Afghan military.

The Pentagon officials replied they are "satisfied" with plans to create a 352,000-troop Afghan force. "The issue isn't the number," Allen said, adding the indigenous force is now big enough that the focus is on how they are positioned around the country.

With U.S. forces moving into a supporting role in 2013, U.S. and Afghan officials are looking to "thicken" troop levels in some parts of Afghanistan. That will mostly come from Afghan forces, whicm marks a big shift in tactics.

Allen and Miller said the operation is on track for NATO and U.S. troops to hand over control to Afghan forces and officials at the end of 2014. Republican lawmakers criticized President Obama for setting the 2014 withdrawal mark. Allen said the time line has "focused" both U.S. military officials and Afghan leaders on preparing the nation for a post-American period.

The general said he expects the U.S. military will have a presence there beyond 2014, but how far that role will go has yet to be discussed between Washington and Kabul.

Military experts say it is increasingly clear that the Obama administration and Pentagon officials are preparing Afghanistan for an American exit.