WASHINGTON - The United States’ plan to wind down its combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier than expected relies on shifting responsibility to Special Operations forces that hunt insurgent leaders and train local troops, according to senior Pentagon officials and military officers. These forces could remain in the country well after the NATO mission ends in late 2014.
The plan, if approved by President Obama, would amount to the most significant evolution in the military campaign since Obama sent in 32,000 more troops to wage an intensive and costly counterinsurgency effort.
Under the emerging plan, US conventional forces, focused on policing large parts of Afghanistan, will be the first to leave, while thousands of Special Operations forces remain, making up an increasing percentage of the troops on the ground. Their number may even grow.
The evolving strategy is far different from the withdrawal plan for Iraq, where almost all US forces, conventional or otherwise, have left. Iraq has since devolved into sectarian violence that threatens to undo the political and security gains there.
Pentagon officials and military planners say the new plan for Afghanistan is not a direct response to the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. Even so, the shift could give Obama a political shield against attacks from his Republican rivals in the presidential race who have already begun criticizing him for moving too swiftly to extract troops from Afghanistan.
Senior US officials have also expressed a desire to keep some training and counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan past 2014. The transition plan for the next three years in Afghanistan could be a model for such a continued military relationship.
The plan would put a particularly heavy focus on Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets. They would be in charge of training a variety of Afghan security forces. Americans would no longer be carrying out large numbers of patrols to clear vast areas of Afghanistan of insurgents, or holding villages and towns vulnerable to militant attacks while local forces and government agencies rebuilt the local economy and empowered local governments.
Those tasks would fall to Afghan forces, with Special Forces soldiers remaining in the field to guide them. This shift has already begun to take place.
The defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, surprised NATO allies last week when he announced that US forces would step back from a leading role in combat missions by mid-2013, turning over security responsibilities to Afghan forces a year earlier than expected.
The United States has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 22,000 of them expected to leave by this fall. No schedule has been set for the pace of withdrawal for the 68,000 US troops who will remain, although some administration officials are advocating for Obama to order another reduction by the summer of 2013.
The planned shift in military personnel first calls for creating a two-star command position overseeing the entire Special Operations effort in Afghanistan. Next, the three-star corps headquarters that currently commands the day-to-day operations of the war - and is held by an Army officer from the conventional force - would be handed over to a Special Operations officer.
Officials said that no final decisions had been made on the timing of the transition, although it is likely to begin late this year as the rest of the surge forces are withdrawn. There has also been no decision on the number of troops to be committed to the mission as it evolves in 2013 and into 2014, officials said.