NATO took command yesterday of international troops in southern Afghanistan, embarking on the alliance's most ambitious mission yet in hopes a new approach will break a rising Taliban insurgency.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assumed control from the US-led coalition that ousted the Taliban from government in 2001. It marked the occasion with a transfer of flags at a small ceremony in Kandahar.
The NATO force would continue the coalition's efforts to "provide security as well as reconstruction projects and humanitarian assistance," ISAF said in a statement.
The transfer brings around 8,000 British, Canadian, Dutch, US and other troops under ISAF command in six provinces in the south, expanding the number of its troops nationwide to 18,000. ISAF, which has been under NATO command since 2003, has already been operating in western and northern Afghanistan, as well as Kabul.
The move into the south demonstrates the international community's commitment to Afghanistan, the commanders of both forces said.
"NATO is here for the long-term, for as long as the government and people of Afghanistan require our assistance," the ISAF's commander, British Lieutenant General David Richards, said in the statement.
"Todays transfer of authority demonstrates to the Afghan people that there is a strong commitment of the part of the international community to further extend security into the southern province," coalition commander Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry said.
The south, the Taliban's heartland, sees the worst of the insurgency with regular suicide and roadside bombings.
Military officials also admit that the insurgents are better organized than ever and are able to launch attacks on coalition bases.
NATO has urged the international community to match their troop deployments with development aid, with a lack of reconstruction and effective policing seen as one of the reasons for a surge in Taliban violence this year.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned in an interview with the Financial Times yesterday that Afghanistan could again become a breeding ground for terrorists without greater international help.
NATO "will do its job but you have to do yours as well in assisting the Afghan people and government, but also in preventing the country from becoming a stronghold for terrorists who want to run and destroy our society," De Hoop Scheffer said.
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