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Marine Gen. John Allen, the top overall commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was ordered by Obama last summer to pull out 10,000 U.S. forces by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end of September 2012. That has driven the move to accelerate a transition to Afghan control.

Allen said in an interview Thursday that winding down the Marine combat mission in Helmand makes sense because security “has gotten so much better now.” He said the pullout of 23,000 U.S. forces in 2012, including an unspecified number of Marines, likely will begin in the summer, which historically is the height of the fighting season in Afghanistan. Allen said Afghan security forces, often criticized for weak battlefield performance, desertion and a lack of will, are closer to being ready to assume lead responsibility for their nation’s defense than many people believe.

“The Afghan national security forces are better than they thought they were, and they’re better than we thought they were,” Allen said.

That is why he thinks it’s safe to lessen the Marine’s combat role in Helmand, reduce their numbers and put the Afghans in charge.

That approach also allows Allen to build up elsewhere. He said that in 2012 he will put more U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, increase the number of U.S. special operations forces who are playing a key role in developing Afghan forces, and add intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources. He said he plans to add “several battalions” of U.S. forces in the east. He gave no specific troop number, but a battalion usually totals about 750.

“I’m going to put a lot more forces and capabilities into the east,” he said. “The east is going to need some additional forces because our intent is to expand the security zone around Kabul.”

The top Marine in Helmand, Maj. Gen. John Toolan, said he is not convinced that 2012 is the best time to shift the focus to eastern Afghanistan, where the Haqqani network has taken credit for a series of spectacular attacks recently, including suicide bombings inside Kabul, the heavily secured capital. He said he believes the Taliban movement in southern Afghanistan is still the biggest threat to the viability of the central government.

Toolan said the Marines continue to make important progress against a Taliban whose leaders are showing signs of frustration and division.

“They’re starting to break up,” Toolan said. “There’s still a lot to be done to see that these insurgents stay on their backs.”

Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and who recently visited U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said there is a risk to putting the Afghans in the lead role in Helmand as early as 2012.

“If you throw them into the deep end and put them in the lead in really tough neighborhoods you run the risk that they get their noses bloodied early in ways that could make it hard for them to recover because they lose confidence,” Biddle said in an interview in Washington. On the other hand, if the U.S. and its allies wait until 2013 or 2014 to hand off to the Afghans in the most challenging areas, there would be less chance to bail them out.

“It’s a dilemma with no obvious solution to it,” he said.