KABUL, Afghanistan -- NATO took command yesterday of U.S. troops fighting insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, putting the Western alliance in charge of security amid an increase in fighting.
British army Lt. Gen. David Richards, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, called the transition historic for the alliance and for Afghanistan. He said the transfer of U.S. forces under 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," he said at a handover ceremony attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Throughout Afghanistan we will continue to confront insurgents when and where necessary," he said. "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 are U.S. forces in eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.
Cross-border attacks are on the rise despite Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's repeated commitments to rein in militants.
About 8,000 American troops will remain under direct U.S. command to serve as a counterterrorism 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 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "We will maintain our strong national capability in support of our counterterrorism mission to strike al-Qaida 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 the first ground war in its 57 years. And as the violence escalates, NATO commanders are struggling to persuade 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, 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, seven of them Americans.
U.S. forces have suffered the highest number of combat deaths among foreign forces this year, with at least 50 Americans killed in hostile fire. Canadian forces have had 27 combat deaths.
Together, Americans and Canadians account for almost three-quarters of the foreign forces' deaths under hostile fire in Afghanistan this year.
The insurgents' heavy toll against Canadian troops is putting political heat on Canada's government. In a recent opinion poll, 59 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Canadian soldiers "are dying for a cause we cannot win." An earlier poll found that more than half of Canadian respondents believe their country is more likely to be attacked by terrorists because their nation's forces are in Afghanistan.
NATO's supreme allied commander, U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones, says he is confident the alliance can handle any military challenge but believes "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 in Washington during a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations. "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 suffered the brunt of the war, which is causing increasing dismay among Afghans almost five years after U.S. and Afghan forces removed the Taliban regime.
Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.