JALALABAD, Afghani-stan - One of the most significant turning points in one of America's longest and costliest wars is imminent: Afghanistan's fledgling security forces are taking the lead for security nationwide, bringing the moment of truth on the question of whether they are ready to fight an insurgency that remains resilient after nearly 12 years of conflict.
Nowhere is that question more pressing than in this city near the Pakistani border, which is the capital of Nangarhar province. In the province, which has a predominantly Pashtun population, the ethnic group that makes up the Taliban, insurgents regularly ambush government forces, blow up the offices of humanitarian organizations and control parts of a countryside that has seen a spike in opium poppy cultivation.
Nangarhar is considered so dangerous that foreign military forces still handle security in more than half of its 22 districts.
That will change, after Afghan President Hamid Karzai declares - in an announcement expected soon - that Afghan forces are taking over security around the country and U.S. and other foreign forces will move entirely into a supporting, backseat role.
At that point, the remaining districts in Nangarhar, along with other hotspots still in the hands of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, will become the Afghan troops' full responsibility.
Residents of Jalalabad, a bustling trading hub and agricultural center on the junction of two rivers, worry about whether the Afghan forces can keep them safe from an insurgency that they say is equipped and trained in neighboring Pakistan. They also fear that the Afghan forces still don't have enough heavy weapons or firepower.
"Our main concern is that for more than 10 years the international community managed to do nothing and that they are now trying to make us strong. It's too little too late," said Lal Mohammad Durrani, a member of the Nangarhar provincial council. "We need more weapons."
NATO training since 2009 has dramatically ramped up the Afghan National Security Forces, bringing it up from 40,000 men and women six years ago to about 352,000 today.
Once the transition is announced, coalition troops will move entirely into a supporting role - training and mentoring, and in emergency situations providing the Afghans backup in combat, mainly in the form of airstrikes and medevac.
That is to pave the way for international forces - currently numbering about 100,000 troops, including 66,000 Americans - to leave. By the end of the year, the NATO force will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will be replaced, if approved by the Afghan government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise.
President Obama has not yet said how many soldiers he will leave in Afghanistan along with NATO forces, but it is thought that it would be about 9,000 U.S. troops and about 6,000 from its allies.
Already Afghans carry out 90 percent of military operations around the country. They are in the lead in security in 312 districts nationwide, where 80 percent of Afghani-stan's population of nearly 30 million lives - and only 91 districts remain for them to take over - including 12 in Nangarhar.
US Toll in Afghanistan
• Lt. Col. Todd J. Clark, 40, of Evans Mills, N.Y.; assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.
• Maj. Jaimie E. Leonard, 39, of Warrick, N.Y.; assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.
• Staff Sgt. Jesse L. Thomas Jr., 31, of Pensacola, Fla.; assigned to the 39th Transportation Battalion, 16th Sustainment Brigade, 21st Theater Sustainment Command, Kleber Kaserne, Germany.
Source: Department of Defense