Afghanistan army on track for handover, Defense Ministry says

Afghanistan is on track to build up its army so it can take the lead along with other local forces in securing the country by the end of 2013, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said that the Afghan Army had already reached its target number of 195,000 troops, which will be part of a 352,000-strong Afghan National Security Force, including police and other security forces, by the end of this year.

"I am announcing now that the Afghan National Army has completed the number of 195,000," Azimi said. He said the government agreed with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan that 352,000 should be the target number for the end of 2012.

Afghan security forces now number about 330,000. They are expected to take over much of the fighting as the U.S. draws down an additional 23,000 troops to reach 68,000 by the end of September. U.S. troop levels were at a high of about 100,000 last year.

The Afghan army and police are now in charge of security for areas home to half the nation's population, with NATO forces in a support role. The coalition hopes to keep handing over control until Afghan forces are fully in charge by the end of 2013, with foreign troops supporting and mentoring. All foreign combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.

The U.S. may retain a small number of forces past that date to help train and mentor the Afghan army and help with counterterrorism efforts.