Washington: The US plans to keep its Special Operations forces that hunt insurgent leaders and train local troops in Afghanistan despite an earlier announcement to end the NATO-led combat mission in 2014, a media report has said.
The plan, if approved by President Barack Obama, would amount to the most significant evolution in the military campaign since he sent in 32,000 more troops to wage an intensive and costly counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported citing senior Pentagon officials.
Under the plan, American conventional forces, focused on policing large parts of Afghanistan, will be the first to leave, while thousands of American Special Operations forces (SOF) remain, making up an increasing percentage of the troops on the ground; their number may even grow, the paper said.
The evolving strategy is far different from the withdrawal plan for Iraq, where almost all American forces, conventional or otherwise, have left.
The emerging plan is to use Afghanistan`s most elite troops to counter any residual terrorist threat over the coming months as well as to devote the military`s best trainers to the difficult task of preparing Afghan security forces to take over responsibilities in their country.
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.
Green Berets, created by president John F Kennedy in the 1960s and conducting quiet missions in dozens of nations around the world, are known for what is as called "foreign internal defence" - using combat, mentoring, language and cross-cultural skills to train local forces in rugged environments, the NYT said.
At the same time, the elite commando teams within SOF would continue their raids to hunt down, capture or kill insurgent commanders and terrorist leaders and keep pressure on cells of fighters to prevent them from mounting attacks.
Under the plan, the US 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, the NYT said.
Those tasks would fall to Afghan forces, with Special Forces soldiers remaining in the field to guide them. White House officials confirmed in broad terms the shift to a Special Operations mission, and said a formal announcement on the future of the mission was expected at the May summit meeting of NATO leaders in Chicago, the paper said.
"The President said in June that when the drawdown of surge forces is complete in September, US troops will continue coming home at a steady pace and our mission will shift from combat to support as the Afghans take the lead," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had last week 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 announcement took NATO allies by surprise. According to the report, 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 report adds, the shift could give President Obama a political shield against attacks from his Republican rivals in the presidential race who have already begun criticising him for moving too swiftly to extract troops from Afghanistan.
The planning for a transition of the Afghanistan mission is a central effort among the Pentagon`s civilian planners and the military`s Joint Staff, as well as among officers at the United States Central and Special Operations Commands, the report noted.
Senior Pentagon officials involved in the planning acknowledged that a military effort with a smaller force and a more focused mission could be easier to explain to Americans who have tired of the large counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and, previously, Afghanistan.
Though no final decision has been made on the timing of the transition, it is likely to begin late this year.
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.
The US 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 American troops who will remain, although some administration officials are advocating for President Obama to order another reduction by the summer of 2013.
Officials conceded that the Afghan National Police programme remained a huge disappointment, but said that a great value in American investment had been organising local Afghan police units, drawn from the villages they are assigned to protect, the report said.