KABUL -- The top commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan believes government security forces have improved faster than expected and will be ready to take the lead in the 11-year-old war against the Taliban when foreign combat forces take a back seat this spring.
Marine Gen. John Allen told The Associated Press that the main job over the next two years for the International Assistance Force -- as the NATO-led troops in Afghanistan are called -- will be to advise, train and build the capabilities needed for Afghan forces to go it completely alone.
They will face their first test when the fighting season gets under way in the late spring and summer. During the harsh Afghan winter, snow often blocks roads and fighting dies down.
The Afghan security forces, which have nearly reached their full strength of 352,000, still need much work to become an effective and self-sufficient fighting machine, but a vast improvement in their abilities was behind a decision to accelerate the timetable for putting them in the lead nationwide, Allen said.
President Barack Obama announced earlier this month that the Afghans would take over this spring instead of late summer -- a decision that could allow the speedier withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
The Afghan troops "are further along in their capabilities than we had anticipated, and I'm very comfortable frankly with their being in the lead in 2013," Allen said in a recent interview ahead of his departure. "This is an acknowledgment of their capabilities."
The general, who has led the military coalition for 19 months, is leaving Afghanistan on Feb. 10. The White House said it would nominate him to become the head of NATO forces in Europe after he was exonerated in a Pentagon investigation of questionable email exchanges with a Florida woman linked to the sex scandal that led his predecessor, David Petraeus, to resign as CIA director.
Allen, 59, of Warrenton, Virginia, said the investigation was troublesome, but he was confident that the process would clear him.
"I'll make no secret that it was on my mind, but my number one goals were the interests of the troops, the coherence of the campaign and doing all I could obviously to further our combined interests here," he said. "But it does weigh on you, and while it weighed on me it really weighed on my family, it really weighed on my family, and the findings ultimately were announced and I continue to move on."
If confirmed by the Senate, Allen would succeed Navy Adm. James Stavridis in the NATO post.
He would not comment on how quickly the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops would return home, or how many American soldiers will remain after the end of 2014, when all foreign combat troops are to leave Afghanistan - saying Obama will make that decision.
"We are advising now, and for the foreseeable future and until the latter part of the spring we will be advising at the battalion level," Allen said, adding that the advising would progressively move up to larger formations until the work was completed. "This is in conjunction with the drawdown of our own forces and in a very measured way, in a way that the Afghans are familiar with and we are able to predict we will eventually move up to the corps level."
Afghan troops already have taken the lead for security on territory holding 85 percent of the country's population of around 30 million.
"In many respects they are already leading operations, 80 percent of operations across the country are being led by the Afghans right now. So I am confident that in this coming fighting season, where technically they will be in the lead across the country operationally, that they are ready and we will be in support of them," Allen said. "I think they are going to do fine this year and we will stay with them. There is much work still to be done."
The Afghan lead in fighting has already become apparent in the casualty figures.
U.S. troop deaths declined overall from 404 in 2011 to 295 in 2012. More than 2,000 U.S. troops and nearly 1,100 coalition troops have died here since the U.S. invasion in late 2001. Last year many of those deaths were at the hands of the Afghan forces they were partnered with or training. Deaths from so-called insider attacks - Afghan police and troops killing foreign allies - surged to 61 in 45 attacks last year compared with 2011, when 35 coalition troops were killed in 21 attacks
By comparison, more than 1,200 Afghan soldiers died in 2012 compared to more than 550 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
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.