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America's exit strategy in Afghanistan is to have Afghan forces take the lead in fighting for their country. But too often these days, the job still falls to U.S. troops.
A senior officer in Afghanistan tells NPR that Americans continue to coddle Afghan forces and that this must stop. Tough love is in, the officer says. He says the Afghan forces are far more capable than the U.S. estimates and have simply grown accustomed to the U.S. doing everything for them.
That pretty much sums up the situation in southern Afghanistan earlier this year.
Americans Out Front
In May, just outside the city of Kandahar, Sgt. Matthew McMurray and his platoon joined Afghan troops on a patrol through a village.
The Americans prodded the Afghans to lead the effort to search homes for insurgents or bomb-making materials. Hours later, McMurray offered his assessment of the Afghan soldiers.
"I think it'll take a long, long time. We have to keep pushing them," he says. "It is very frustrating."
That sounds familiar to Seth Jones, a defense analyst at the RAND Corp. who just returned from Afghanistan.
"Overall the Americans are still conducting a lot of operations in Afghanistan right now," Jones says. "In terms of combat operations, the Americans are at least in many operations in the lead."
Many operations are in the south and east, where the Taliban insurgency is the strongest. In those areas, 30 to 40 percent of Afghan battalions are what American officials term "independent." But officials say those Afghan units still need American advisers.
All this contradicts the public line, which is that Afghan forces are out in front.
Australian Army Brig. Gen. Roger Noble, a deputy operations officer, told Pentagon reporters recently that three-quarters of the country is now under Afghan control or is moving in that direction.
"In these areas, Afghans have the lead for their own security and their own lives. And the future of Afghan is day by day increasingly in Afghan hands," Noble said. "This is the plan and it's on track."
Canadian Brig. Gen. Thomas Putt, director of development for the Afghan security forces, says the Afghans are vastly better than they were five years ago.
"I was out watching between 8,000 and 9,000 soldiers and policemen operating together in multibrigade-level operations that I had never ever seen before," he says.
Others say that's exactly the point: that if the Afghan forces are getting better they should be planning missions and doing the bulk of the fighting.
"They have got to take the lead for the campaign," Jones says. "The American role has got to be then one of supporting. But it's got to be the Afghans in the lead of a campaign."
To make that happen — and some U.S. officers are now making this case — American troops can't keep doing everything for them.