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In Afghan Taliban birthplace, US troops stepping back

FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan (AP) — 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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