- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — A new American commander took control of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan yesterday, vowing that the United States and its allies would remain committed to achieving stability in this war-ravaged country.

But with rebels and al Qaeda fighters still carrying out hit-and- run attacks on coalition troops, Afghan soldiers and aid workers, Maj. Gen. John R. Vines said that maintaining security would not be easy.

“Some 25 years ago, as Afghanistan was wracked by war, the world looked the other way. Your presence here today reflects a commitment not to repeat that mistake,” the 53-year-old Gen. Vines said after taking over from Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill.

The hand-over ceremony took place on a runway lined with helicopters at Bagram air base, the headquarters of 11,500 coalition troops, 8,500 of them American, deployed in the country.

Senior Afghan commanders attended the ceremony, as did Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and diplomats including U.S. Ambassador Robert Finn.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis called the change in leadership “routine.” American commanders and soldiers in Afghanistan regularly serve tours of duty that don’t exceed a year.

The handing over of control coincides with a shift in combat ground forces. About 4,000 troops from the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., are replacing an equivalent number of soldiers from the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., Col. Davis said.

Both divisions fall under the umbrella of the 18th Airborne Corps, which Gen. McNeill still leads. Gen. Vines is due to take over command of the 18th Airborne this summer, Gen. McNeill said.

Gen. Vines has been in Afghanistan for nine months. As commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, he was responsible for tactical combat missions.

Coalition troops have been in Afghanistan since Afghan ground troops, aided by a massive U.S. bombing campaign, ousted the Taliban government in late 2001.

Afghan authorities say the Taliban and their allies have been regrouping in recent months, stepping up attacks not only on coalition forces and Afghan government forces, but also on aid workers.

Despite that, Gen. Vines said, the capacity of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to launch attacks is diminishing.

“They have much less capability than they did a year ago,” he said in an interview. “Do they have the capability to inflict casualties on the government of Afghanistan, on its forces, on nongovernmental organizations? Yes they do, in limited areas.”

He said the reason aid workers had been attacked repeatedly in recent weeks was because they were “getting out more” — implementing humanitarian projects in new places as security countrywide increases.

Gen. McNeill, who is due to leave soon after spending a year in the country, said a slight reduction of coalition forces could occur in mid-2004, after the primary corps — of about 9,000 — of the U.S.- and French-trained Afghan army is formed.

U.S. officials hope the army, which is expected to grow to 70,000, will replace irregular Afghan militias loyal to powerful regional warlords.

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