By ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon on Wednesday offered new details of its plan for shifting from a combat mission in Afghanistan to one focused on training and advising Afghan forces as they gradually shoulder more of the combat burden.
The Army identified five U.S.-based brigades, as well as an Army Reserve organization, that will be reconfigured and sent to Afghanistan between April and August to "generate, employ and sustain" Afghan forces.
The Army called this a "new mission" after more than 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
Each brigade will deploy with fewer than half its assigned number of soldiers and will be comprised only of officers and senior noncommissioned officers, along with a contingent of Defense Department civilians. Once in Afghanistan they will operate in 18-person teams in a train-and-advise role.
The concept is similar to the way the U.S. advised Iraqi security forces during the final 15 months of the Iraq war.
Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top U.S. commander of day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon last week that the 18-person teams will be linked to an American or coalition combat brigade and serve as a sort of bridge to the U.S. and NATO final exit from the battlefield. Scaparrotti said the teams will each work with an Afghan army or police unit.
"By doing that, we maintain our connectivity to the Afghan forces as we thin out," Scaparrotti said.
In areas were the insurgency is especially active or Afghan forces are especially weak, the American advisory teams may have a rifle platoon operating with them for added protection, Scaparrotti said.
As the 18-person teams head for Afghanistan, at least 23,000 U.S. combat and support forces are due to leave, in line with President Barack Obama's plan to reduce the total U.S. military presence to 68,000 by the end of September.
This is the beginning of a transition away from a combat role for U.S. and coalition forces, a process that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said may be completed as early as mid-2013. Although U.S. troops participating in the train-and-advise mission will be armed and prepared to defend themselves, their role is to prepare the Afghan army to take full security responsibility by the end of 2014.
The Pentagon did not say where in Afghanistan the first train-and-advise teams would operate.
The reconfigured Army brigades that will deploy starting in April are the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky.; the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Ga.; the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, from Fort Carson, Colo.; the 4th Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, from Fort Bliss, Texas; and the 162nd Infantry Brigade from Fort Polk, La.
Also part of the deployment will be an unannounced number of soldiers from the 1st Army, an organization based at Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., whose usual mission is to mobilize, train and deploy National Guard and Reserve soldiers.
Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.