American commanders in Afghanistan are preparing for a major shift in their mission this year.
U.S. troops are expected to move away from their lead role in combat operations in most areas. Instead, they'll advise Afghan forces to take the lead in both operations and security duties throughout much of Afghanistan.
Both the Army and the Marine Corps are setting up training teams to advise and assist Afghan army and police units. Officials tell NPR that as many as 2,000 handpicked, non-commissioned officers and junior officers in the Army will be sent to Afghanistan as part of this effort beginning in May.
Those Army teams will begin training next month at Ft. Polk, Louisiana in preparation for their new roles. Marine officials say that some of their training teams already are starting to work in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.
"By this summer, we want the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) in our area to completely plan and execute operations," said one Army officer familiar with the training teams plan. "We have to continue to take the leap of faith or they'll never be truly independent."
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, has said that American forces must go from their current role, where the troops are partners with Afghan forces, to more of an advisory role, and allow Afghan forces to take over certain parts of the country.
One major area for the training teams will be in the south and southwestern part of the country, around Kandahar and Helmand Province, which have seen security gains over the past two years.
A Looming Deadline
Part of the new shift in focus is driven by the calendar. Afghan forces are scheduled to take the lead in their own security by the end of 2014. American commanders say they must start making that transition now, while there are still sizeable numbers of US troops on the ground to ease the way.
"The sense is (the Afghan forces) should be able to fail now," said another Army officer working on the training team effort, "rather than wait until 2014 when they fail and there's no time to help them or train them."
The number of U.S. forces is slated to drop from about 90,000 today to around 68,000 by September. Today, most military operations are led by U.S. soldiers and Marines with Afghan forces playing a subordinate role.
"A 'combined patrol' would be U.S. forces going out with one vehicle of ANA (Afghan National Army) in the rear," said the Army officer. "Drawdown is coming so we must put these guys out front."
American officers in Afghanistan acknowledge that the abilities of the Afghan forces are at best "spotty" and it will be some time before they are able to stand on their own without U.S. help.
NPR reporters have been on patrols with U.S. Marines and Afghan forces. In some cases the Marines planned and led the patrols – even to the point of talking with villagers through an interpreter, while the Afghan forces stood and watched.
U.S. Will Advise, But Not Lead
The U.S. training teams – with up to 30 members-- will be placed throughout Afghan army and police headquarters, officials say.
While some of the teams will be in headquarters, others will go on missions, though Afghans will be leading those operations.
The teams will include U.S. personnel with a variety of skills: bomb disposal, intelligence, logistics, medical evacuation and fire support, such as calling in artillery or airstrikes.
That all makes sense to retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno. He's a former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. And last month he co-authored a paper calling for such an advisory effort, called "The Next Fight, Time For A Change Of Mission In Afghanistan."
"I think it's very significant," said Barno. "The American commanders out there recognize that the long-term success is going to have to be achieved by Afghan forces not by American forces with Afghan forces off to the side. So that's going to really be a change of outlook and a change of approach for us."
In his paper, Barno said that Afghan units are "largely untested – and are perhaps far from ready."
"We have not put any serious, high-priority focus on the advisory effort," Barno said in an interview. "We've had so many American infantry battalions there that the counterinsurgency mission can be done by the Americans with just a few Afghans accompanying them."
There have been some U.S. military advisers with Afghan forces, said Barno. And when that happens, "their professionalism and confidence goes up and they can be pretty effective in the field."
The Iraq Model
One officer likened the plan to the teams used in Iraq to train Iraqi army and police units.
"This is a very smart move at this particular time," said retired Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, who commanded the U.S. training effort in Iraq. "What it meant in Iraq is that coalition forces could participate less as the directors and more as the assistors. I think these teams will put us in a position to do that in Afghanistan — of course much later than most of us would have preferred, but at least we're doing it now."
Dubik said he met with Afghan defense and interior officials last fall and they are in favor of the teams. Still, Dubik said it was clear that the Afghans are not yet ready to take over the entire security effort.
"There'll be the Afghans leading in many portions of the country where their capability allows them to lead," said Dubik. "But in some of the areas (coalition) forces will still retain the lead."
One particular area where the U.S. will remain in the forefront is the mountainous eastern part of the country, hard up against the Pakistan border. Insurgents, especially members of the Haqqani network, are able to slip across the porous border, attacking U.S. and Afghan forces, and in some cases attacking Kabul itself.