REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN--The top commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday that U.S. forces would begin a major shift next year to an advisory role, in hopes of building up the Afghan army’s fighting skills and gradually extricating American and allied units from a combat role.
Gen. John Allen told reporters in Kabul that small teams of U.S. advisers would be sent to Afghanistan to live and fight with Afghan army units starting in 2012, in hopes that large U.S. combat units will be able to gradually step back from the lead role in providing security and to withdraw completely by the end of 2014.
But the U.S. could face difficulty in reducing its combat role on such a rapid timetable. Afghan units remain plagued by personnel and operational problems and large areas of the country still face stubborn insurgency. Allen acknowledged that U.S. and Afghan forces would have to step up offensive operations in eastern Afghanistan next year, which has remained an insurgent stronghold even as security has improved in the south.
White House officials support a shift toward an advisory effort because it will be a visible sign that the U.S. is disengaging from the decade-old war at a time when President Obama is running for re-election in part on his success at wrapping up wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Allen has been discussing the move in Afghanistan privately with Pentagon and White House officials for months, but his comments Tuesday were the first time he publicly described his timetable for launching the advisory effort. The move is also aimed at shoring up backing for the continuing efforts in Afghanistan among other NATO members, where support for keeping combat troops in the country through 2014 has plummeted.
Allen and his staff would help Afghan forces operate independently by assigning them U.S. personnel to provide day-to-day advice on planning operations, as well as calling in artillery, close air support and, if necessary, U.S. helicopters to evacuate wounded.
“We are going to see probably the introduction…of some advisory forces that will begin to support the [Afghan] forces from inside and that will in many respects be a preview of how we’ll see our forces postured in the years to come,” Allen said.
Allen made his comments on the day that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in Afghanistan for talks with commanders and Afghan officials. He is on a week-long trip to multiple war zones that included a stop Tuesday morning in Djibouti to see U.S. troops at Camp Lemonier, a base for U.S. military operations in Yemen and Somalia.
Later in the week Panetta is scheduled to go to Iraq for a ceremony marking the end of the U.S. military mission there and to Libya.
The U.S. is still trying to repair relations with Pakistan after the U.S. helicopter attacks on a Pakistan border post in late November that killed two dozen Pakistani troops. Pakistan has closed border crossings through which NATO ships around 30% of its supplies, forcing the U.S. to rely more heavily on northern supply routes through Russia. Allen said he had spoken with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani by telephone Monday, but he declined to speculate on when the border crossings might be reopened.
There are currently 94,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a number scheduled to drop to 91,000 by the end of the month and to 68,000 by the end of next summer.
With the U.S. drawdown already under way, Western troops have begun handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces in some parts of the country—and some of those areas have seen upticks in attacks by the Taliban and other insurgents.
In Badghis province, in northwest Afghanistan, Afghan police Tuesday shot a would-be suicide bomber who tried to strike a NATO base in Qala-e-Naw, the provincial capital. Badghis, where insurgent attacks are relatively rare, is on a list of areas designated for the next phase of security handovers. Most of the NATO troops in Badghis are Spanish, and Spain’s government has said it will begin withdrawing its forces next month.
Allen said that he planned to request that the Pentagon send adviser teams composed of mid-career officers and senior non-commissioned officers. Over time, the mix of U.S. forces on the ground would gradually shift away from infantry units trained to clear and hold areas of insurgents and toward advisers and so-called “enablers,” including helicopter units, logisticians and other support personnel that will assist Afghan soldiers.
He said the exact timing of the shift and how many advisers would be brought in initially had not been finalized. But he made clear that the advisory effort would grow substantially in coming years and gradually become the main mission for U.S. forces remaining in the country.
“The crossover point” where the U.S. mission transitions from combat to mostly advising “remains to be determined,” Allen said.
-- David S. Cloud and Laura King
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, left, talks with Marine Gen. John Allen and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker on Tuesday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Pool/Getty Images