In birthplace of Afghan Taliban, US military starts stepping back ahead of full withdrawal

President Barak Obama will decide in the coming weeks how many American troops to send home from Afghanistan next year. A major factor in his decision will be the question of how successful U.S. troops have been in preparing the Afghans to secure their country at bases like this one, located in one of the country's most violent areas — the birthplace of the Taliban.

There have been calls in Congress for Obama to increase the size of a planned drawdown of U.S. forces before the end of summer 2013, when the Afghan military is supposed to take the lead in security across the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well, has suggested he wants the drawdown accelerated.

"We are working to make this transition of security happen sooner. We want all the foreign forces to come out of the villages and go to their bases so the Afghan forces can carry out security," Karzai said last week.

But too large a pullout too soon could undermine the fight against the Taliban insurgency if Afghan forces are not fully prepared. It is widely thought that Gen. John Allen, the top military commander in Afghanistan, and his senior staff want to keep a large force in place for the summer fighting season, before international forces move into an entirely back-up and training role behind the Afghan forces by the start of autumn — an event known as "Milestone 13."

Obama is expected to decide on the size of the withdrawal after meeting with Karzai in Washington in early January. Their talks will also be key on determining what the U.S. military's role will be in Afghanistan after December 2014, when the foreign combat mission is set to end and almost all international troops are scheduled to leave. The U.S. currently has 66,000 thousand troops in Afghanistan out of an international force totaling about 102,000.

The work of training Afghan army units being done at this dusty base in the Zhari district of Kandahar province and at other bases scattered around the country will help shape Obama's decision.

U.S. and Afghan officers here say the district is a success story: Violence has not gone up more than two months after the American presence here was brought down from around 3,500 troops to around 300, with Afghan forces taking the lead in more areas.

But the situation remains tenuous. Residents say Taliban fighters remain in control of large parts of the district.

Zhari is where Taliban leader Mullah Omar was born, where he founded the movement that ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and has battled U.S. and Afghan forces for the past 11 years. Three years ago, Taliban forces controlled the district, and it has been one of the three most violent areas of Kandahar, the province that is the Taliban's traditional heartland.

U.S soldiers had a hard fight in Zhari when they moved into the south in large force as part of the surge in American troops early in the Obama administration. The district has rich farmland that produces pomegranates and grapes used for raisins, and the fields, covered in dirt mounds, formed natural trenches the Taliban could fight from. Food, which was abundant, was easily coerced by the Taliban from villagers.

Lt. Col. Tim Davis, commander of Combined Task Force Buffalo, said, "the density of mines was impressive" when his task force arrived and that it required "an entire combat operation just to put a road in."

The commander of international forces in Kandahar and three other southern provinces, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, told reporters recently that progress in Zhari had been "astounding." Afghan forces are already in the lead of security duties in many parts of the district, he said. Across the south, the Afghans carry out 400 to 500 daily patrols without coalition assistance.

Afghan military officers in Zhari contend they can now handle the fight without much help from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force.

"Zhari is about 70 percent safe now," said Col. Abdul Rahimi, operations officer of the Afghan army's 3rd Brigade 205th Corps at Pasab base, though he acknowledged neighboring Maiwand district remains a problem. The number of Taliban fighters was down to around 100 in Zhari and Maiwand, compared to some 900 two years ago, he said.

"The enemy is not able right now to fight against the government, nor can it take over if ISAF leaves," Rahimi said.

Residents in Zhari, however, give a different picture. Some said the government has control of the main highway but not much else.

"Government claims that they control most of the area are just a dream not related to any reality," Allahnoor Taraki, a 38-year-old farmer, said.

Mohammed Salim Danghar, a taxi driver, said the province remains hotly contested. While the government has improved its position, he said, "we all know that most of the area is controlled by the Taliban."

The American drawdown in Zhari is a model of plans for the pullback elsewhere.

Here, large American combat units have been replaced by smaller teams made up of about 18 soldiers each. The teams are embedded with Afghan units, advising them on tactics, leadership and strategy — but not fighting.

In Zhari, attacks "have not only decreased, but significantly decreased," said Davis.

"The challenge is when we start pulling back," he said. The key to a successful transition will be "to see if the local security forces can take up the slack."

The U.S. military plans to repeat that process elsewhere in the south and east by creating 400 such teams. At the same time, eight of the 14 U.S. brigades in Afghanistan will be reduced in size to 1,400-1,900 personnel, down from 3,500, to act as support for the teams. That role change alone will mean a reduction of between 13,000 to 17,000 NATO troops.

The U.S. military has not made public its recommendations to Obama about the size or timing of next year's drawdown. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that NATO and the Afghan government intend to begin the final phase of transition by the mid to latter part of 2013 — suggesting he prefers a later start to the drawdown, as opposed to earlier in 2013.

The top contender for Panetta's job, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, is thought to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has already announced that about 3,800 of his country's troops will leave by the end of 2013, leaving 5,000 to stay into 2014.

The Afghan army now numbers about 350,000 and has taken the lead on security in areas that are home to 76 percent of Afghanistan's population of 30 million. Still, despite their progress, only one of Afghanistan's 23 brigades around the country can operate on its own without coalition help of some kind, the U.S. Defense Department said in its most recent semi-annual report to Congress.

Attacks by insurgents around the country have not decreased, but the violence has been pushed out of most population centers, the report said. Civilian and NATO casualties have fallen. But Afghan forces are taking an increasing toll. More than 300 Afghan soldiers and policemen are dying each month, according to Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, who said that represented an increase, though he did not provide comparative figures.

"We still face challenges in southern Afghanistan," Abrams acknowledged in his headquarters at Kandahar Air Field.