KABUL, Afghanistan – This year's pullout of 23,000 American troops from Afghanistan is at the halfway mark, U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces, said Sunday in an interview with The Associated Press.
It's a kind of milestone toward wrapping up the U.S. and NATO combat role after a decade in the war-torn nation - but Allen cautioned against putting too much emphasis on the U.S. troop drawdown, because the U.S.-led coalition's campaign is continuing.
Still, Allen said that he knows the clock is ticking on the NATO coalition's combat mission, which is to end at the close of 2014 - just 29 months from now.
In a wide-ranging interview in his office at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Allen also said that while Afghan security forces were increasingly taking the lead, more work needs to be done to shore up their confidence in planning and executing operations. He said this summer's coalition operations were aimed at pushing insurgents farther from population centers, expanding the security zone around the capital, Kabul, and getting more Afghan forces into the lead in the east, which borders Pakistan.
The Afghan army and police force are battling low levels of literacy, corruption within their ranks and lack of equipment and experience, but Allen said they were showing themselves to be increasingly capable on the battlefield. Getting them into the lead is an essential goal of the next 29 months, he said.
"We haven't even recruited the whole Afghan national security force. That's not going to happen for another couple months, but by Oct. 1, we hope to be at 352,000," he said. "We don't finish completely fielding the Afghan forces until December 2013. So just at that level alone there is significant work remaining to be done."
About 90 percent of coalition operations now are partnered with Afghan forces, and Afghan forces are in the lead more than 40 percent of the time, he said.
"We want to get that number higher, and that will come from battalion and higher units being able to take the lead with respect to planning," he said. "Planning is really the hallmark of any large military formation, and it's typically a weakness in new formations and new armies. So we are putting a lot of effort into teaching them how to plan, execute, recover from the mission and then re-cock and go back out again."
By the end of this year and into next year, Allen would like to see 5,500 personnel working in police and army advisory teams, but now the mission has 20 percent fewer advisers than it seeks.
"I don't know if we will make up all of that," he said, "but it's an ongoing request and I don't miss an opportunity to emphasize that we really do need these folks."
As the Afghan forces gear up, the exit of foreign troops continues.
The drawdown of 23,000 U.S. troops this year, now slightly more than half completed, will accelerate in the coming few months, he said.
"August will be the heaviest month," Allen said. "A lot is coming out now and a great deal will come out in August and early September. We'll be done probably around mid-September or so."
President Barack Obama pulled out 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan last year and ordered another 23,000 to be withdrawn by Sept. 30. That will leave roughly 68,000 American troops still in the country. By Oct. 1, 40,000 NATO forces will also still be fighting.
Up to one half of the 23,000 troops being pulled out this year are combat forces, he said. Small numbers are being pulled from the relatively stable northern and western parts of the country. Some will be withdrawn from the east and the south "and a good bit in the southwest," he said.
Helmand province in the southwest and Kandahar province in the south are areas where the Taliban has its strongest roots. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops and their NATO and Afghan partners have worked the past two years to rout insurgents from their strongholds in the two provinces. Insurgents today are trying to reclaim their influence there.
The NATO mission has concentrated on population centers, and this summer, it is focusing on going after insurgents outside the cities.
"If you look at the 10 most violent districts, almost all of them are in the south or the southwest," he said. "But it constitutes a relatively small part of the population of Afghanistan overall, " he added.
"We want to continue to push the insurgency increasingly out of the population centers into areas where they can be isolated, where they can be disrupted, where they can be rendered irrelevant," he said. "And that's the nature of the operations that are under way now."
U.S., NATO and Afghan forces also are working in the east to stop the infiltration of insurgents crossing the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan, expand the security zone around Kabul in Wardak and Logar provinces, just south of the capital, and improving security along highways extending southward from the capital.
In the northeast, coalition and Afghan forces are conducting extensive operations in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces - areas where al-Qaida and other transnational militants are active.
Unneeded military equipment also has started making its way home.
"The intent, ultimately, is to have the excess out of the theater about the time the mission would be completed in 29 months," he said. "And it will take all of that time, actually, to move that excess out - either a shipping container or a vehicle about every seven minutes between now until then."
Even so, he said it would be a mistake to focus too much on the exit of U.S. troops and equipment.
"It's not just about the drawdown and it's not just about America," he said. "There are 50 states in this coalition. There is also a significant Afghan national security force presence and that number is getting bigger by the day and they are getting more capable by the day."
He emphasized that work in Afghanistan will not end with the NATO combat mission in 2014.
"We're probably going to see some post-2014 military presence - some U.S. presence and a NATO presence - and while we've got much work to do in the next 29 months, we'll have additional time later for the continued professionalization of the Afghan security forces," he said, adding that the post-2014 NATO mission is still in the planning stage.