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NATO takes charge of all Afghanistan in alliance's biggest test

NATO takes charge of all Afghanistan in alliance's biggest test

NATO took charge of 12,000 U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, extending its security mission to the entire country nearly five years after the West began its intervention to defeat the Taliban.
The handover sidelines the Pentagon's leadership role in the war-battered country and gives the Brussels-based military alliance its biggest test yet.
The transfer of command, which came months ahead of schedule, "illustrates the enduring commitment of NATO and its international partners to the future of this great country," said British Gen. David Richards, promoted to the military's top rank hours before a handover ceremony at the NATO compound in Kabul attended by President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry.
The NATO takeover caps an already historic expansion of missions for the largely European alliance that was created as a Cold War bulwark against the Soviet Union. It gives Richards command of the largest number of U.S. troops fighting under a foreign commander since World War II.
The move comes during a rapid spread of the Islamist Taliban insurgency, with close to 100 suicide attacks this year, a nearly fivefold increase over 2005. Almost 200 civilians and soldiers have been killed. According to an AP count based on Afghan, NATO and U.S. figures, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, mostly militants.
"NATO has never been tested like this, ever," said Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. expert on Afghanistan. "They've got an extraordinarily difficult task ahead of them."
With NATO handed the lead role, Washington has shed some responsibility for a stability project that appears to be headed in the wrong direction. U.S. voters readying for midterm elections have expressed fatigue with the Bush administration's twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Increasing the international role _ which America has been unable to do in Iraq _ could disarm critics who say U.S. President George W. Bush mishandled the war. But few Muslim countries have joined the international effort, with fewer than 500 troops from Muslim nations.
On Friday, Bush acknowledged setbacks in the training of Afghan police to fight against the Taliban resurgence but predicted eventual victory.
Richards pledged a reversal of Afghanistan's deteriorating security, joking that he would appear in front of a firing squad if the country isn't safer when his command ends in February.
"If by next spring these improvements are not evident then I will be surrendering to whoever wants to put me up against a wall," he told reporters after the ceremony.
But analysts say NATO will be hard-pressed to reverse the deepening insurgency and lawlessness plaguing Afghanistan, since the alliance lacks the troops to maintain a strong presence across volatile regions and halt militant incursions from Pakistan, where Taliban leaders and fighters are believed to hide.
"It's hard to imagine that the situation will improve. We've got to have sufficient security forces to seal the border or at least better patrol it," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterinsurgency expert who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington.
Richards may be better suited to seek help from Pakistan. The British general said his promotion Thursday to four-star general _ Britain's top rank _ signifies a more intense international commitment to the country and gives him a bigger role dealing with regional governments.
An immediate task will be to convince members of the 37-nation NATO coalition to deliver thousands of promised troops and weapons that have been withheld, and to ship them into combat in the country's southern and eastern battle zones.
Germany, Spain and Italy have been reluctant to send troops to southern Afghanistan, where soldiers from Canada, Britain, the United States and the Netherlands have borne the brunt of the fighting. NATO also has forces in the more stable northern and western regions of Afghanistan, and in Kabul.
"There are NATO countries that appeared to want a peacekeeping mission and now they're in the middle of an insurgency," Jones said. "This isn't the mission they signed up for."
In Canada and the Netherlands, public pressure is building to bring soldiers home. Calls to withdraw could succeed if either country suffers more casualties, Jones said.
With about 12,000 troops, the U.S. is the biggest contributor to the 31,000-strong NATO mission. Britain has 5,200 troops and Germany has 2,750 troops here.
Eikenberry will remain the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, with administrative and legal responsibility for all American forces, including those led by NATO. Eikenberry will continue to lead some 8,000 U.S. troops functioning outside NATO who are tracking al-Qaida terrorists, helping train Afghan security forces and doing reconstruction work.
Eikenberry said that consolidating the command under Richards would streamline military cooperation and effectiveness. Direct U.S. control is now centered on the sprawling American base at Bagram. Most air operations in the Afghan theater also remain under American oversight.
U.S.-operated prisons and interrogation centers at Bagram will remain under American command, while NATO will continue to transfer its detainees to Afghan police.
The alliance's leadership takes command of U.S. troops responsible for 11 mountainous eastern provinces just two months after being handed control of restive southern Afghanistan, where NATO has struggled to stem rising violence.
A 10-day NATO offensive in Kandahar province last month was the largest ground operation the alliance has ever undertaken.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed and more than 100 taken prisoner in NATO's coordinated ground and air assaults. Few NATO soldiers were killed or wounded. Richards said the operation prevented the Taliban from holding valuable ground that might have allowed it to attack Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.
"The significant defeat of the Taliban is probably the greatest single defeat they suffered since 2001," Richards said. "We have unequivocally proved our mettle in military operations."
An American four-star general, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeil, will take charge of both U.S. and NATO forces in February, pending confirmation by the Senate.