- Associated Press - Sunday, December 23, 2012

Residents in Zhari, however, give a different picture. Some said the government has control of the main highway but not much else.

“Government claims that they control most of the area are just a dream not related to any reality,” Allahnoor Taraki, a 38-year-old farmer, said.

Mohammed Salim Danghar, a taxi driver, said the province remains hotly contested. While the government has improved its position, he said, “we all know that most of the area is controlled by the Taliban.”

The American drawdown in Zhari is a model of plans for the pullback elsewhere.

Here, large American combat units have been replaced by smaller teams made up of about 18 soldiers each. The teams are embedded with Afghan units, advising them on tactics, leadership and strategy — but not fighting.

In Zhari, attacks “have not only decreased, but significantly decreased,” Col. Davis said.

“The challenge is when we start pulling back,” he said. The key to a successful transition will be “to see if the local security forces can take up the slack.”

The U.S. military plans to repeat that process elsewhere in the south and east by creating 400 such teams. At the same time, eight of the 14 U.S. brigades in Afghanistan will be reduced in size to between 1,400 and 1,900 personnel, down from 3,500, to act as support for the teams. That role change alone will mean a reduction of between 13,000 and 17,000 NATO troops.

The U.S. military has not made public its recommendations to Mr. Obama about the size or timing of next year’s drawdown. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said recently that NATO and the Afghan government intend to begin the final phase of transition by the middle to latter part of 2013 — suggesting he prefers a later start to the drawdown, as opposed to earlier in 2013.

The top contender for Mr. Panetta’s job, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, is thought to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.

British Prime Minister David Cameron already has announced that about 3,800 of his country’s troops will leave by the end of 2013, leaving 5,000 to stay into 2014.

The Afghan army now numbers about 350,000 and has taken the lead on security in areas that are home to 76 percent of Afghanistan’s population of 30 million. Still, despite their progress, only one of Afghanistan’s 23 brigades around the country can operate on its own without coalition help of some kind, the U.S. Defense Department said in its most recent semiannual report to Congress.

Attacks by insurgents around the country have not decreased, but the violence has been pushed out of most population centers, the report said. Civilian and NATO casualties have fallen. But Afghan forces are taking an increasing toll. More than 300 Afghan soldiers and policemen are dying each month, according to Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, who said that figure represented an increase, though he did not provide comparative numbers.

“We still face challenges in southern Afghanistan,” Gen. Abrams acknowledged in his headquarters at Kandahar Air Field.