This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and

A recent trip through Kabul and Regional Command East, an area the size of Pennsylvania on the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, revealed that the U.S. role in the country is on a downward slope. U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to dial back the surge by the end of next summer, and continue reductions after that, forces one to think seriously about Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal.

In what time it has left, the United States can do more to prepare Afghans for the formidable challenge ahead. Rather than have U.S. and NATO forces clearing areas of insurgents and then handing them off to the Afghans, it is time for Afghan forces to take the lead, with the help of U.S. advisers, in clearing and holding Afghan territory. The United States will not officially leave Afghanistan until 2014. But given the rate of troop withdrawal outlined by the Obama administration, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan must begin recalibrating their strategy now.

Obama can publicly announce this shift at the NATO summit in Chicago next May, where he is already expected to announce a continuation of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Troop levels are set to fall to 90,000 by the end of this year, 68,000 by next fall, and then perhaps 45,000 by the end of 2013. During my visit, U.S. commanders made strong cases for keeping 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2013, but political and fiscal realities in Washington make that unlikely. Military officials expect that approximately 20,000 soldiers will remain in the country for some years after the Afghans assume control of their security in 2014.

Based on these numbers, the mission in Afghanistan will change sooner than many people anticipate. Obama's likely decision to decrease U.S. troop levels below 68,000 will make it impossible for international troops to maintain their current focus on leading a counterinsurgency campaign; they simply will not have enough boots on the ground to secure the Afghan population. Afghan forces, which now stand at 300,000 and are on track to reach their final planned level of 352,000 within the coming year, will probably have to take the lead within the next year.

Although Afghan forces have come a long way in the past two years under the mentorship of U.S. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, they are not yet up to the task of protecting their country entirely on their own. The Afghan national army and police lack many of the skills required to succeed in modern warfare, chiefly, planning and executing air and artillery support and logistics. They are hampered by low literacy rates and years of neglect from the United States, which only began to dedicate itself to increasing the size and capabilities of Afghan forces two years ago, when Caldwell assumed responsibility for their development.

To be sure, the Afghan troops I saw at Camp Clark in Khost province were capable and strategically minded, able to understand the enemy they face and plan effective ground operations. But there is no question that they will need international help for years to come in order to ensure that medical evacuation, air support, and artillery fire are readily available when they come under attack.

To continue to assist Afghan forces beyond 2014, the United States will need to leave behind a force of some 10,000 special operations forces and enablers, such as helicopter and close air support units. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is likely to demand a similar number of U.S. advisers to assist the fledgling Afghan army and police, according to officials in the region. Without such a residual force, the United States will have trouble confronting the continued threats of al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and the Taliban, all of which would seriously jeopardize the staying power of an elected government in Kabul. 

But to set Afghanistan on the right track, U.S. commanders there must adapt their strategy before U.S. troops can no longer conduct a counterinsurgency on their own. They must begin embedding U.S. and international advisory teams inside every Afghan army and police unit before American forces become so thin on the ground that they can no longer reinforce Afghan units when they come under fire. These combat advisers would train Afghan forces and allow them to lead the fight against the Taliban and Haqqani network. Afghans know their enemy. With U.S. aid, they will increasingly be able to take the lead in the fight against them.

Read more from The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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  • JOHN NAGL is President of the Center for a New American Security. A retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, he served in both Iraq wars and recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan sponsored by the International Security Assistance Force.
  • More By John Nagl