updated 1/16/2008 6:52:31 PM ET 2008-01-16T23:52:31

The Afghan army will lead nearly all military operations in eastern Afghanistan this year, with U.S. troops in a support role, a top American general said Wednesday.

It's the next step in a strategy to increase the strength of Afghanistan's military so U.S. forces can leave one day.

Since the first major Afghan-led operation last July in southern Ghazni province, U.S. troops have been training their Afghan counterparts across the country to take over a larger share of the security responsibilities.

"Our intention is for all 2008 operations in Regional Command East to be led by Afghan National Security Forces with enabling assistance (fire support and medical evacuation in particular) from coalition forces," Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, deputy commanding general for operations for American forces in Afghanistan, wrote in an e-mail.

"It is very seldom that coalition forces do something by themselves without Afghan participation — and the level that we are now at is Afghans leading and coalition force supporting ... and performing operations that support the (Afghan) commander," he said.

Plans to expand new army
Afghanistan had a strong army under communist rule in the 1980s, but it fell apart during the civil war a decade later. A new army was formed from scratch in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban.

The Afghan Defense Ministry plans to expand its 50,000-strong army to 70,000 troops by the end of this year, though it has said an army of 200,000 would be ideal. U.S. officials are now considering a proposal to expand the Afghan army's target strength from 70,000 to 80,000.

The international community is banking on the development of the Afghan army so that it can eventually withdraw its forces. There are more than 50,000 foreign troops in the country, including about 25,000 Americans.

Lt. Col. Steven A. Baker, the commander in charge of Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, said that he has seen the Afghan soldiers improve dramatically from "zero" just over a year ago.

"That's our objective is to have them take the lead in everything, so that we're going into more of a support and education role so that our kids don't have to come here," he said.

"Their abilities on the ground, tactically, are very good," Baker said. "They're very brave soldiers. You get in a fight, and they're with you 100 percent, but the planning and logistics piece is what we're working on."

Taking the lead in operations
Whereas a year ago Afghan commanders might not have even attended a high-level military briefing, on Sunday it was Afghans on this forward operating base who gave the briefing in the local language, Dari, with English translation for Votel.

"This year, hopefully, in our area of operation, the Afghan National Army is going to take the lead in operations," said Gen. Mohammad Rahim Wardak, the 201st corps commander overseeing troops in 14 provinces, including Logar.

Afghanistan in 2007 saw a record year of insurgent violence. More than 6,500 people — mostly militants — died, according to an Associated Press count based on official figures.

In Logar, the brigade of Afghan commander Maj. Gen. Qadam Shah is devising and commanding operations, with coalition forces in a subordinate supportive role, Votel said.

Of seven major operations under way in eastern Afghanistan, six are "essentially being led or have the major tactical role being executed by Afghan National Security Forces," he said.

"They are taking the lead militarily, but we still have a very important role in enabling them — things like providing fire support to them, medical evacuations, command and control," assistance that will continue for years to come.

The Afghan troops will establish positions in areas where people have long been sympathetic to the Taliban.

By moving into an area with "a concentration of bad people that we're trying to take care of," Afghan and coalition forces hope to create a separation between militants and the area's residents, Votel said.

"The coalition and the Afghan security forces are being out there with the people, demonstrating to them that we know the weather is bad, but we're here," Votel said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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