Afghan troops ready for bulk of fight: U.S. general

r15.jpgBRUSSELS (Reuters) – The Afghan army could by early next year be leading the vast majority of military operations against enemy insurgents in the country, the U.S. soldier in charge of training them said on Thursday.

Major General Robert W. Cone said Afghan authorities aimed to have 80,000 trained personnel ready by early 2009, compared to just over 57,000 now, as part of an effort to share more of the burden of fighting with NATO countries.

Asked what that meant for Afghan forces’ ability to lead operations against Taliban and other insurgents, Cone told a news conference at NATO headquarters:

“I would say leadership certainly of most operations and probably, depending on their readiness, tending towards virtually all operations.

“That will lift a significant amount of the burden from ISAF forces,” he said of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which commanders currently say numbers around 50,000.

Cone, who leads the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) training effort, said Afghan troops had led around half of 180 joint operations with international forces in the early months of this year.

However, Afghan forces remain short of aircraft, and Cone acknowledged it could be another five years before they could conduct all their own air operations.

“The hardest part is the dropping of bombs from the air. That will require significant training and we are thinking 2013 is when the Afghans will be capable of doing that,” he said.

NATO leaders pledged a long-term commitment to Afghanistan at a summit in April while agreeing to give Afghan authorities more control of the peace and reconstruction effort.

Public support for the Afghan mission remains patchy in many of NATO’s 26 nations and countries which have borne the brunt of the fighting, including the Netherlands and Canada, have faced tough opposition to their decision to deploy troops.

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