US forces putting Afghan transition plan into overdrive

PAKTIKA, Afghanistan — With less than two years before U.S troops withdraw from Afghanistan, American commanders here are going full-bore to ensure that local military and government officials will be ready to take over once coalition forces leave the country. 

On the security side, U.S. troops stationed here at Forward Operating Base Sharana in eastern Afghanistan have almost completely moved from battlefield "owners to integrators," Army Lt. Col. Scott Thomas told The Hill. 


Scott, the deputy commander for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said his forces are now focused on getting elements of the Afghan National Army (ANA) ready to lead the fight against the Taliban and other extremists in the region. 

American commanders have already handed over a total of four U.S. military outposts in Paktika and neighboring Ghazni province to the ANA, according to Scott. 

The brigade combat team, dubbed Task Force Dragon, is preparing to hand over another four to five U.S. bases to Afghan forces by April, he added. 

American military and civilian advisers have also gone from being "shoulder to shoulder" with Afghan government officials to "looking over their shoulder" at the local level, said Navy Cmdr. Clark Childers, head of the U.S. provincial reconstruction team at FOB Sharana. 

Childers's unit and other reconstruction teams are pushing local Afghan leaders to rely upon the central government in Kabul, rather than U.S. or NATO forces, to maintain order in Paktika and elsewhere in the country. 

The administration's plan to have all U.S. forces out of the country by 2014 hinges on the successful shift of all security and governance responsibilities to the Afghans. 

Roughly 32,000 American troops have already left Afghanistan, with the remaining 68,000 set to rotate out of the country over the next year and a half. 

Gen. John Allen, commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is poised to deliver his plan to withdraw those remaining U.S. forces to the White House within the next few weeks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters last Tuesday. 

As the Pentagon and White House debate that final withdrawal plan, U.S. forces on the ground continue to set the stage for the eventual pullout. 

The ANA units working with Army units in Paktika have become "very proficient" at basic combat missions, according to Scott. 

Paktika, which sits along the volatile border with Pakistan, has increasingly become a flashpoint between coalition troops and insurgent forces. 

Taliban fighters and members of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network have launched a series of cross-border raids against U.S. forces in Paktika and other bordering provinces. 

That rising violence prompted Allen to focus this year's spring offensive against insurgent strongholds in the area. 

That said, Afghan military units have regularly carried out missions in Paktika, such as clearing roads of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and calling in artillery strikes against enemy positions, with little support from U.S. forces, according to Scott. 

Now, Army task force members and their ANA counterparts are drilling down into the combat skills "at the graduate level," including intelligence analysis and tactical resupply of Afghan forces, Scott said. 

When asked if there were any areas concern about the Afghans' ability to pick up where U.S. forces leave off in 2014, Scott replied, "I can't pinpoint a place that is going to be a problem for us."

Similar progress has been made on the government side with local Afghan leaders, according to Childers. 

But determining what is a "win" in terms of governance is not always as clear as it is on the battlefield, he said. 

Small victories, such as as getting local leaders to accept and understand what official Afghan state their village or area belongs to, play a large role in strengthening the ties between Kabul and provincial governments like those in Paktika. 

"It is a mindset change," Childers said, noting the situation changes constantly "from official to official, district to district." 

As the clock winds down on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Childers's unit and other reconstruction teams must also fight the urge to do the job of governance for the Afghans, instead of letting them do it on their own. 

"It is very difficult to look at the [2014] timeline and not [want to] do it for them," he said. "If we do that and then leave, they will struggle."