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NATO Takes Security Helm

Transfer of command in Afghanistan puts the Western alliance in charge of troops nationwide at a time of escalating violence.

October 06, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday took command of U.S. troops fighting insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, putting the Western alliance in charge of security across the country amid an increase in fighting.

British army Lt. Gen. David Richards, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, called the transition historic for both the alliance and Afghanistan and said the transfer of U.S. forces to his command would not mean a reduction in capability.

"By bringing all of these forces under unified command, we enhance the effectiveness of the operation, as we have far greater flexibility in the use of our assets," Richards said at a ceremony attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "Throughout Afghanistan we will continue to confront insurgents when and where necessary.

"But the overarching purpose of our security operations is to enable improvements in government capacity and to accelerate reconstruction and development, for real benefit to the lives of all Afghans."

NATO has about 31,000 troops from 37 countries under its command in Afghanistan. About 10,000 of those are U.S. forces in eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.

Cross-border attacks are on the rise there despite Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's repeated commitments to rein in militants.

About 8,000 U.S. troops will remain under direct American command to serve as a counter-terrorism force and to support reconstruction projects, as well as to help train and equip the Afghan army and police.

"As a NATO member, the United States will remain the largest contributor of troops and capability," said Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of American troops in Afghanistan. "We will maintain our strong national capability in support of our counter-terrorism mission to strike Al Qaeda and its associated movements wherever and whenever they are found."

NATO originally agreed to deploy troops in Afghanistan as peacekeepers in support of aid projects, but the alliance is now waging its first ground war in its 57-year history. And as the violence escalates, NATO commanders are struggling to persuade the 26 member nations to fulfill a request for an additional 2,500 troops.

NATO commanders also have complained that some member governments place restrictions on what their troops can do in Afghanistan, making it more difficult to launch coordinated combat operations.

Richards took command of forces in southern Afghanistan on July 31. Since then, at least 16 foreign soldiers have died in hostile fire, including seven Americans.

U.S. troops have suffered the highest number of combat deaths among foreign forces this year, with at least 50 killed in hostile fire. Canadian forces have had 27 combat deaths, the second-highest number among the foreign contingents.

Together, Americans and Canadians account for almost three-quarters of the foreign forces' deaths from hostile fire this year.

The insurgents' heavy toll on Canadian troops is putting political heat on Canada's Conservative Party government. In a recent poll, 59% of respondents agreed with the statement that Canadian soldiers were "dying for a cause we cannot win." In an earlier poll, more than half of Canadian respondents said they thought their country was more likely to be attacked by terrorists because its forces were in Afghanistan.

NATO's supreme allied commander, U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones, said he was confident the alliance could handle any military challenge. But he added that he thought the strife in "Afghanistan will not be resolved by military means."

Defeating the insurgency depends more on "how well the reconstruction mission, the international aid mission, is focused," he was quoted Wednesday as saying at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "And on that score I think there is a requirement to do more, to bring more focus, more clarity, more purpose and more results in a shorter period of time."

U.S. and NATO commanders say they have killed hundreds of insurgents in recent weeks. But Afghan police, soldiers and civilians have borne the brunt of the war, which is causing increasing dismay among Afghans almost five years after the Taliban regime was ousted.

More than 800 members of the Afghan security forces have died in those years, compared with 337 foreign members of the U.S.-led coalition, Eikenberry said Thursday.

Once-rare suicide bombings are now relatively common, even in the capital, Kabul. A suicide attacker killed at least 12 people outside the Interior Ministry on Saturday. Two days later, a man threw himself in front of a NATO convoy in the capital while detonating hand grenades strapped to his body, wounding three soldiers and three civilians.

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