Tue, Feb 06, 2007 - Page 5 News List

US takes over NATO-led forces

TRANSITION After a year of escalating violence in Afghanistan, the US will take over NATO-led forces and is expected to be harsher on rebels than its British predecessors

AP , KABUL

A British soldier of the NATO-led forces walks during a routine foot patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

General Dan McNeill, the highest ranking US general to lead troops in Afghanistan, has taken command of 35,500 NATO-led soldiers, putting a US face on the international mission after nine months of British command.

The transition on Sunday came after a year of sharply increased violence following the alliance's push into the Taliban's southern heartland, and military officials said privately they expect McNeill to take a harder line with militants than his predecessor, General David Richards.

Richards backed a controversial peace deal in the southern town of Musa Qala that crumbled Thursday when an estimated 200 Taliban fighters overran the town. NATO said a targeted airstrike on Sunday killed a key Taliban leader, causing the upheaval.

McNeill takes command after a bloody 2006 in which insurgents launched a record number of suicide and roadside bombs. About 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence last year, according to an Associated Press count based on numbers from US, NATO and Afghan officials.

McNeill -- a veteran of five foreign conflicts, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, where he served in 2002-03 -- said at a handover ceremony on Sunday that the mission of NATO's International Security Assistance Force was to facilitate reconstruction so Afghans "might enjoy self-determination, education, health and the peaceful realization of their hopes and dreams."

"We will quit neither post nor mission until the job is done or we are properly relieved," McNeill said.

Ninety minutes before the ceremony, a NATO airstrike killed a Taliban leader in Musa Qala, where an October peace deal between village elders and the Helmand provincial government prevented NATO, Afghan and Taliban fighters from coming within 5km of the town center.

Collins said the Taliban leader was killed within that zone with the approval of the Afghan government. He said no NATO or Afghan forces were on the ground but could enter if requested by the government.

Mohammad Wali, a Musa Qala resident, said the airstrike killed a militant named Mullah Abdul Gafoor and some of his associates while they were riding in a truck just outside Musa Qala. Collins didn't name the person killed, saying officials wanted to be certain of his identify.

Another resident, Lal Mohammad, said on Saturday that the Musa Qala militants were being led by Gafoor, the hardline militia's corps commander in western Afghanistan during the Taliban regime.

Musa Qala saw intense battles between Taliban fighters and British troops last summer and fall. The fighting caused widespread damage to the town of around 10,000 inhabitants, most of whom were forced to leave. British forces withdrew after the truce, which turned over security to local leaders.

Richards, in an interview on Saturday, defended the deal, saying it had caused a split between locals and Taliban fighters and that it was a classic tool of counterinsurgency warfare.

Richards oversaw NATO's largest-ever ground battle, a fight in the southern district of Panjwayi in September that NATO says killed over 500 fighters. Military officials say the Taliban thought they could drive out NATO forces right as they moved into the south.

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