"As [ISAF] gets away from the danger zone, we see [Afghan National Security Forces] stepping up," Lamrani says. "Going in to 2012, the big question is, can the ANSF hold it together?"
THE FUTURE OF ANSF
Some government watchdogs don't think so, and repeatedly doubt the Afghan's ability to provide for themselves without allied support. An October report from U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated security facilities in Afghanistan will likely not last after the allied planned drawdown in 2014.
Other reports point to waste among U.S. contractors and rampant corruption in the local government.
Of the roughly 180 Afghan Army Battalions, only a handful has ever been capable of operating independently. Some reports number those battalions as few as one. "It's almost inevitable that no Afghan unit could be in that top tier," says O'Hanlon. "ISAF does itself a big disservice by making this metric the most prominent one. It's actually not indicative of anything."
There is no Afghan air force to speak of, and coalition troops are still bolstering the Afghan military's ability to clear roads, among other logistics.
"It's much more informative in Iraq and Afghanistan to look at that second tier," he says. "If these units are doing most of what we're hoping they can do on their own, and doing it effectively and courageously and consistently, we'd be 90 percent of the way towards where we need to be in this business."
ISAF is on schedule to accomplish the remainder of its training efforts by 2014, O'Hanlon says. Training will continue through the roughly 10,000 troops the U.S. will likely leave in Afghanistan after the planned draw-down.
WHO WILL STAY?
The bulk of American troops remain in Regional Command East, or RC-E, in the eastern portion of the country surrounding Kabul. It witnessed 38 percent of the enemy-initiated attacks in 2012, according to ISAF. U.S. Troops are also predominantly in the Southern, Southwestern and Western commands. Roughly a third of the enemy attacks took place in RC-SW, ahead of the 21 percent in RC-S.
"RC-South and RC-Southwest have improved considerably," says Jeff Dressler, senior research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. "RC-East is still a challenge."
"The key challenge for this year is how well Afghan forces will be able to carry the fight forward in the South and Southwest," he adds.
It remains unclear how low the number of U.S. forces will fall by the planned drawdown in 2014. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top allied commander, provided Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with three options: 6,000, 10,000, and 20,000 troops, according to The New York Times.
Experts tell U.S. News that middle number could provide the sweet spot the U.S. needs to demonstrate its troop withdrawal while still maintaining a force strong enough to prop up burgeoning Afghan security.
"Nobody is under the illusion ANSF will be completely independent and out on their own after 2014," says Dressler. "That was never the plan. That was never how things were conceived."
The residual force ought to be calculated based on certain key questions, he says, such as "What is the mission you're asking these forces to do and how many troops does it take to do it?" The White House and Pentagon should reevaluate the mission if the number of troops they deploy falls short of that requirement, Dressler says.
He predicts any significant drop in troop numbers will take place after the fighting season in the summer and early fall. Marine Gen. Joe Dunford will take command of ISAF in the coming weeks and will likely push for a continuation of troop levels.
"It would be unusual for a general to come in, be in control of a theater-level mission, and not have a say in the size and scope of the withdrawal he's going to have to carry out," says Dressler. "I don't see the rush, quite frankly. The Afghans still need a considerable amount of help, and we still have a considerable training mission underway."