Many are concerned that the Afghan forces will not be up to the task of securing the country after 2014. The size of the force will also have to be reduced after coalition forces leave because much of the funding for it will have dried up. At its summit in Chicago last May, NATO agreed on a fundraising goal to underwrite a force of about 230,000 that would cost about $4.1 billion annually.
When Allen took over from Petraeus in July 2011, the war was in full force. But the tide was turning, and public opinion in the United States and in coalition countries was tiring of a lengthy conflict that was widely seen as propping up a corrupt and thankless Afghan government.
In mid-2010, the United States had more than 100,000 troops and coalition forces totaled close to 150,000. The U.S. was spending billions of dollars on a costly counterinsurgency strategy that had all the hallmarks of nation-building. The Afghan army and police were rapidly growing thanks to a mostly U.S.-funded program that cost more than $20 billion, but their combat abilities did not match their numbers.
‘‘When I got here we had virtually no battalion level operations under way, and the brigade level operation was only an ambition. Today, every day, there are brigade and corps level operations going on across Afghanistan,’’ Allen said. He said those operations were being planned, carried out and often supplied by the Afghans, with foreign troops there in a mostly advisory role.
The improvements allowed Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to announce the spring handover date earlier this month.
Allen said the decision was made after the withdrawal last September of the 33,000 U.S. troops who were part of a surge announced by Obama in December 2009. In early 2012, Allen said he was grappling with the question of how many combat brigades he could carve out of the 68,000 troops that would remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal, but the drawdown actually provided an opportunity to thrust Afghan forces in the lead.
‘‘The term that I used was they were better than we thought, more importantly they were better than they thought,’’ he said.
But the Afghan forces still need work and to build up key capabilities, including their ability to sustain themselves on the battlefield — from medical evacuations to fuel and ammunition — and to carry out combined arms operations.
‘‘The building of their capabilities will take time,’’ Allen said, adding that he was ‘‘comfortable that our plan to do both these things is on track over time.’’
The Afghan military will have to make do without requested weapons such as heavy tanks and F-16 fighter jets, but Allen said the equipment that they will receive should give them considerable firepower. They include converting MI-17 transport helicopters to gunships and providing Afghan combat units at all levels with mortars.
He said the Afghans had to get used to the idea that they will not have the same air support in the future as they have today. Currently the coalition can provide air support to troops on the ground anywhere in Afghanistan within 12 minutes of a request.
‘‘They have to get used to their own resources being the firepower necessary,’’ he said.
Follow Patrick Quinn on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PatrickAQuinn