KABUL  - Nato troops are scaling back joint operations with their Afghan allies and are focused instead on providing air power and other logistical support as Western combat forces gradually withdraw, a senior US general said Wednesday.
While the US-led coalition once stressed “shoulder-to-shoulder” offensives with Afghan troops, the priority now is to have Afghans carrying out operations on their own with Western forces offering back-up, Major General Larry Nicholson told reporters.
“We are now unpartnering from ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces),” said Nicholson, deputy chief of staff for operations for the Nato force. “I call it tough love.”
 Afghan army and police had improved markedly but still needed help from US-led forces with air strikes, artillery fire, helicopter medical evacuations, explosive disposal teams and special vehicles designed to clear roadside bombs, Nicholson said. Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was working to train and assist the Afghans to build up those capabilities, he said.
“We will push them as far as we can to be self-sufficient, to take care of their own problems,” he said. “We look at ourselves as an enabling force.”
The general’s comments reflected a concerted effort by the United States and Nato to wrap up the alliance’s role in Afghanistan after 11 years of grinding war against the Taliban insurgency.
Nato has pledged to withdraw combat troops by 2015, with the United States planning a small follow-on force. The United States currently has about 66,000 troops on the ground, roughly two-thirds of the ISAF mission.
In the meantime, US and Nato commanders are pressing their Afghan allies to operate independently, he told journalists travelling with Pentagon chief Leon Panetta who arrived in Kabul earlier Wednesday.
“What we say is we want them to see failure, we want them to smell it, we want them taste it, we just don’t want them to achieve it,” he said.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta flew into Afghanistan on Wednesday to confer with commanders about how many American troops should remain in the country after most combat forces withdraw in 2014.
Panetta’s unannounced visit comes as President Barack Obama moves to wind down the unpopular 11-year war, weighing the pace of a troop withdrawal and a future follow-on force after the Nato-led mission is due to end. With Obama poised to make key decisions, Panetta said he wanted to discuss options on troop numbers with the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen. “There will begin to be a drawdown that will take us toward the end of 2014,” Panetta said during a talk with soldiers and airmen at a US air base in Kuwait.
“At that time, the agreement is that we’ll have an enduring presence that will continue in Afghanistan.
“The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering in these next few weeks to determine exactly what that will be.” Panetta told reporters earlier in the trip that US and Afghan officials were working to resolve the dispute over inmates at Bagram.
But he said US and other Western officials worry that some detainees might be released and then return to the battlefield.
Officials said Panetta was not expected to discuss a sex scandal that has ensnared the outgoing commander in Afghanistan, General Allen.