WASHINGTON — The United States plans to maintain special forces in Afghanistan after it winds down its combat operations in the country, using them to hunt down insurgent leaders and train local troops, The New York Times reported.
Citing unnamed senior Pentagon officials, the newspaper Saturday said these forces could remain in the country well after the NATO mission ends in late 2014.
NATO defense ministers, meeting in Germany this past week, voiced hope that Afghan forces can take the lead across the country in 2013, while foreign troops shift to a backup role.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had caused a stir before arriving in Europe on Wednesday when he suggested that the United States hoped to wind down the combat mission as early as mid-2013.
Under the emerging plan, thousands of US special forces will remain after the bulk of US conventional troops leave, The Times said.
Pentagon officials and military planners say the new plan for Afghanistan is not a direct response to the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, the paper said.
Even so, the shift could give US President Barack Obama a political shield against attacks from his Republican rivals, who have already begun criticizing him for moving too swiftly to extract troops from Afghanistan, The Times noted.
The new focus builds on a desire to use the elite troops to counter any residual terrorist threat as well as to devote the military's top trainers to the task of preparing Afghan security forces, the report said.
The plan would put a particularly heavy focus on Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, noted the paper.
They would be in charge of training a variety of Afghan security forces, according to The Times. At the same time, the elite commando teams within special operations forces 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, Americans would no longer be carrying out large numbers of patrols to clear vast areas of Afghanistan or holding villages and towns vulnerable to militant attacks, the paper noted.
Those tasks would fall to Afghan forces, with special forces soldiers remaining in the field to guide them, The Times said.