NATO assumed command of foreign forces in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, taking over from a US-led coalition that toppled the Taliban regime five years ago and completing its expansion across the country.
The formal transfer of command in 14 provinces in the east to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took place at a ceremony in Kabul attended by President Hamid Karzai and the top commanders of both forces.
At the ceremony at ISAF headquarters, a coalition flag was run down a flagpole and an ISAF flag hoisted in its place.
ISAF commander General David Richards praised the work of the coalition and told the gathering the force was committed to continuing its work and "helping Afghanistan on its journey towards a more secure future."
"History will not forget your sacrifices and your achievements. You have left us an outstanding legacy. We will continue your work," the British general said, referring to the coalition.
Richards was promoted to a four-star general immediately after midnight.
The coalition commander, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, said: "This historic day marks another chapter in the continuing progress of Afghanistan and underscores the alliance's commitment to helping the Afghan people rebuild their country."
With the transfer yesterday, ISAF absorbed 10,000 coalition troops -- most of the US force -- swelling the size of the force to 31,000 nationwide.
Another 8,000 US troops from the east will remain under the command of the coalition and be used for counterterror -- principally hunting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden -- training and aircraft support duties.
The 37-nation ISAF took over command of the Taliban-dominated southern provinces from the coalition on July 31, moving into one of the most hostile areas of the country and embarking on what is its most ambitious mission yet.
The east also contains several strongholds of the Taliban, with some military saying al-Qaeda also has a presence there.
The coalition invaded Afghanistan almost exactly five years ago -- on Oct. 7, 2001 -- and within weeks toppled the extremist Taliban government which had sheltered al-Qaeda leaders blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But the extremists have regrouped and are mounting an insurgency that is going through its bloodiest phase yet.