Marines will lead the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan this year, reducing by about half their numbers in the key province of Helmand as Afghans move fully into the combat lead there, a top U.S. general said Wednesday.
Helmand, which has seen some of the fiercest American and allied fighting over the past two years, is transitioning to Afghan control faster than most other Taliban-contested areas of the country. Yet to be seen is whether the Afghans will manage to stand on their own as the Americans thin out.
As evidence that Helmand remains dangerous for allied forces, six British soldiers were killed Tuesday when their armored vehicle was hit by an explosion _ the biggest loss for British forces there since 2006.
Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who has commanded the U.S. Marine contingent in Helmand for the past year, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his Camp Leatherneck headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan that the number of Marines is likely to shrink by 8,000-10,000 from the current total of 17,500 by the end of September. That is the target date for the overall U.S. force in Afghanistan to drop to 68,000 from the current 90,000.
Toolan is completing his Afghan assignment on Monday, to be succeeded by Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus. He asserted that the Taliban have been greatly weakened in what has long been considered their heartland.
"The insurgency is under significant pressure," he said. "A lot of its influence has been ushered to the periphery of the main population centers, and there is very strong momentum behind the transition" to Afghan control.
Toolan said the top commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, has not yet made final decisions on the troop drawdown. His plan is expected to be final before President Barack Obama meets with other NATO heads of government at a summit meeting in Chicago in May.
The broad aim, established at NATO's November 2010 summit, is to have Afghan forces fully responsible for security by the end of 2014, with the residual U.S. and NATO military role yet to be fully defined. Between now and then, allied forces are shifting from combat into a "train-and-advise" mission.
Toolan said his Marines already have made that shift. They have formed 44 "security force assistance teams" of 12 to 18 people each that are working with individual Afghan army and police units to accelerate their move toward full independence, he said.
As the Marines' overall presence shrinks this year, the number of such teams will drop to about 30, he said. That will be enough to assist "a good portion" of _ but not all _ Afghan security units, he said.
As an illustration of how the Marines are preparing to shrink their role this year, Toolan said they will have reduced the number of their bases in Helmand to 75 by this spring, from 250 last October. By September or October they will be down to 30 bases, he said. Some are being closed; others are being transferred to Afghan forces for their use.
Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and an occasional visitor to Afghanistan, said he sees reason to worry that U.S. forces will be handing off security responsibility to Afghans this year even as the U.S. troop numbers shrink. The Taliban are likely to see this transition as an opportune time to launch "another wave of counterattacks" that will test the Afghans, Biddle said.
"Lots of people view transition to Afghan security lead as an experiment, and there is a fair amount of uncertainty in a variety of corners about how well or badly it's going to go," he said. "I think it's very, very likely that the Taliban will try to find out."
Toolan said the strategy for Helmand this spring and summer will be focused on limiting the Taliban's capacity for regaining the ground they lost over the past two years by targeting the drug trade that finances them.
By destroying caches of opium and other drug materials, "we will reduce the threat that the insurgents will be able to present after this harvest season, which will support the drawdown of (U.S. and allied) forces that would be leaving here," he said.
Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP