KABUL -- With Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Kabul to take stock as the Obama administration weighs how quickly to draw down troops over the next two years, a senior U.S. military commander on Wednesday hailed the progress Afghan security forces have made.
Marine Maj. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the head of operations for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said NATO troops have begun a radical shift in mission: doing the bare minimum to support Afghan troops, who, he said, are starting to operate unilaterally. "We're now un-partnering from" Afghan forces, Nicholson told reporters Wednesday evening. "We're at that stage of the fight."
If the Pentagon is telling the Obama administration the same thing in closed-door briefings, it could give the White House justification to accelerate the departure of the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops here.
The assessment Nicholson offered, however, is far rosier than the one that U.S. officials have provided recently. They have been citing the resilience of the Taliban and the shortcomings of the Afghan government and military.
Just one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own without air or other military support from the United States or NATO, according to a Pentagon report to Congress that was released Monday.
Nicholson said that although U.S. commanders have made "disingenuous" claims in the past about the extent to which Afghans were acting as equal partners in joint missions, officials now see the Afghan army as ready to operate largely on its own, albeit with key logistical and financial support from NATO. The new strategy as the United States tries to transfer greater responsibility to the Afghan government and military is one of "tough love," Nicholson said.
"We are pushing them to failure," he said. "We want them to see failure, we want them to smell it, we want them to taste it. We just don't want them to achieve it."
Panetta's trip, likely to be his last official visit to the war zone, will give him a chance to consult with American commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the future U.S. role here as the decade-long war comes to an end.
"I look forward to a first-hand view," Panetta told reporters traveling with him. "This will help me as we set the groundwork for the decisions that have to be made by the president with regards to our enduring presence."
The Obama administration is debating how many service members it should aim to keep in the country after the U.S. combat mission ends at the end of 2014. Once that determination is made in the coming weeks, Panetta said, the White House will decide how quickly it will draw down the remaining forces.
The former CIA director, making his eighth visit to Afghanistan in four years, said he was heartened by what he described as signs of progress.
"It is clear to me that we are today in a far better place than we were four years ago, despite some very real challenges that remain in the region," said Panetta, who is expected to retire as defense chief in the coming weeks.
Those challenges include endemic corruption, weak governance, insurgent havens in Pakistan and "a resilient Taliban," he said.
The corruption challenge was underscored by a report released Tuesday by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. It noted that devices intended to detect money laundering at Kabul International Airport apparently are not being used. The bulk currency counters, which can record the serial number of bills — and detect whether U.S. aid money is being smuggled out of the country — were not connected to the Internet, or deployed in any other way, the report said.
The inspector general also found that people whom the Afghan government designates as VIPs or VVIPs, short for "very, very important person," continue to circumvent the cash screening system as they depart the country.
Panetta said violence is starting to ebb after years of escalations, particularly in urban areas.
The Pentagon report released Monday noted a slight uptick in "enemy-initiated attacks" during the reporting period — April 1 through Sept. 30 — compared with the same time frame the previous year. The 1 percent increase, the report said, was influenced by a poor poppy harvesting season, which drove more "low-level insurgents" to the battlefield.
The report noted a sharp increase in attacks in provinces in the west and north, which have traditionally been safer than the south and east. The military said the rise in attacks in those areas comes as insurgents have been pushed out of the Helmand River valley in the south.
The country's eastern provinces along the Pakistani border remain "volatile," according to the report, although Panetta said Pakistan has taken encouraging steps in recent months.
"We are more encouraged with the fact that they want to take steps to try to limit the terrorist threat within their own country and across the border," he said. "As always, actions have to speak louder than words."
The report to Congress included stark language on Pakistan, saying that its "passive acceptance of insurgent sanctuaries, selectivity in counterinsurgency operations that target only Pakistan militants" and failure to interdict explosives smuggled across the border "continue to undermine security in Afghanistan."
Adding to the challenges, a smaller number of insurgents are signing up for the Afghan government's reintegration program, the Pentagon report said. From April to September, 954 insurgents agreed to join the program, which seeks to place militants in alternative employment. More than 1,600 joined during the previous six-month period.
The report said the declining interest in reintegration, which was steepest in the east and south, was the result of insecurity in some areas and the meager financial incentive. Reintegrated militants get $120 a month for three months to aid their transition.
In a break with tradition, Gen. John R. Allen, the top commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, is not expected to brief reporters traveling with Panetta.
The Marine general, who is expected to leave Kabul early next year, has been embroiled in a scandal involving social interactions between a socialite and senior commanders at U.S. Central Command in Tampa.
The Pentagon's inspector general is reviewing the propriety of emails between Allen and the woman, Jill Kelley, who sparked the probe that led CIA chief David H. Petraeus to acknowledge an extramarital affair and resign.