KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - 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."
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.
The drawdown of 23,000 U.S. troops this year, now slightly more than half completed, will accelerate in the coming few months.
"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."