KABUL, Afghanistan — Drawdown plans announced by the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations will shrink the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan by 40,000 troops at the close of next year, leaving Afghan forces increasingly on the frontlines of the decade-long war.
The United States is pulling out the most — 33,000 by the end of 2012. That's one-third of 101,000 American troops who were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of U.S. military presence in the war, according to figures provided by the Pentagon.
In the coming weeks, about 3,500 Fort Bragg soldiers will be leaving Iraq.
"Our goal is to make sure we get everybody back home before the holidays, and that is not an easy task," said Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick.
For the past year, Helmick has been tasked with the day-to-day details of getting all U.S. troops out of Iraq by Dec. 31. He says Al-Qaeda is "alive and well" and points to Iraq's next door neighbors – Iran and Syria – as ongoing challenges.
However, he says Iraq has made some tremendous strides since 2003, when U.S. forces invaded the country.
“I think the U.S. can take pride, really, in the opportunities we’ve given the country. Where they go is really up to them,” Helmick said. "Today, I see a federal police force that is actually out doing patrols and a police force that is more responsive to the country."
Another sign of progress, according to Helmick, is that the average number of daily attacks on U.S. troops has gone down from 148 in 2007 to fewer than five now.
As for Afghanistan, the exit is making Afghans nervous. They fear their nation could plunge into civil war once the foreign forces go home.
Their confidence in the Afghan security forces has risen, but they don't share the U.S.-led coalition's stated belief that the Afghan soldiers and police will be ready to secure the entire nation in three years. Others worry the Afghan economy will collapse if foreigners leave and donors get stingy with aid.
Foreign forces began leaving Afghanistan this year.
About 14,000 foreign troops will withdraw by the end of December, according to an Associated Press review of more than a dozen nations' drawdown plans. The United States is pulling out 10,000 service members this year; Canada withdrew 2,850 combat forces this summer; France and Britain will each send about 400 home; Poland is recalling 200; and Denmark and Slovenia are pulling out about 120 combined.
Troop cutbacks will be deeper next year, when an estimated 26,000 more will leave. That figure includes 23,000 Americans, 950 Germans, 600 more French, 500 additional Britons, 400 Poles, 290 Belgians, 156 Spaniards, 100 Swedes and 50 Finns.
Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the AP that the number of Marines in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan will drop "markedly" in 2012, and the role of those who stay will shift from countering the insurgency to training and advising Afghan security forces.
Amos declined to discuss the number of Marines expected to leave in 2012.
There are now about 19,400 Marines in Helmand, and that is scheduled to fall to about 18,500 by the end of this year.
"Am I OK with that? The answer is 'yes,'" Amos said. "We can't stay in Afghanistan forever."
"Will it work? I don't know. But I know we'll do our part."
Additional troop cuts or accelerated withdrawals are possible.
Many other countries, including Hungary and Italy, are finalizing their withdrawal schedules. Presidential elections in Europe and the European debt crisis also could speed up the pullout. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this week that Australia's training mission could be completed before the 2014 target date.
Back in June, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that when the Obama administration begins pulling troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. will resist a rush to the exists, "and we expect the same from our allies." Gates said it was critically important that a plan for winding down NATO's combat role by the end of 2014 did not squander gains made against the Taliban that were won at great cost in lives and money.
"The more U.S. forces draw down, the more it gives the green light for our international partners to also head for the exits," said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "There is a cyclical effect here that is hard to temper once it gets going."
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings Jr. said the cutbacks that have been announced will not affect the coalition's ability to fight the insurgency.
"We are getting more Afghans into the field and we are transferring more responsibility to them in many areas," Cummings said, adding that many leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani militant networks have been captured or killed.
Afghan security forces started taking the lead in seven areas in July. They soon will assume responsibility for many more regions as part of a gradual process that will put Afghans in charge of security across the nation by the end of 2014.
Some countries are lobbying to start transition as soon as possible in areas where they have their troops deployed — so they can go home, said a senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss transition. The official insisted that those desires were not driving decisions on where Afghan troops are taking the lead.
The official said that because they want to leave, a number of troop-contributing nations faced with declining public support at home have started working harder to get their areas ready to hand off to Afghan forces.
"The big question (after 2014) is if the Afghan security forces can take on an externally based insurgency with support from the Pakistani security establishment and all that entails," Dressler said. "I think they will have a real challenge on their hands if the U.S. and NATO countries do not address Pakistani sponsorship of these groups."
Lekic reported from Brussels. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Helmand contributed to this report.