- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

LAHORE, Pakistan — A British general will command U.S. troops for the first time since World War II when NATO takes charge of the mission to pacify southern Afghanistan today.

Lt. Gen. David Richards, Britain’s most experienced officer in Third World arenas, assumes control of a merged NATO and U.S. force that will grow from 9,000 to 18,000 troops.

It is one of the largest and toughest missions the alliance has faced, covering six southern provinces and extending its authority to almost all of the country. At a press conference in Kabul on Saturday, Gen. Richards promised that NATO will bring a new strategy to the fight.

Instead of chasing down the Taliban, NATO forces will garrison key towns and villages. It wants to bolster the weak government of President Hamid Karzai and win the support of local people by promoting much-needed development.

Gen. Richards said he hoped there will be “secure zones” in the volatile south in three to six months.

The direct approach pursued under American command, particularly by British troops, has claimed the lives of about 700 Afghan fighters — more than a third of them Taliban — and 19 Western troops. U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan police killed 20 Taliban suspects on Saturday after an attempted ambush in the Shahidi Hassas district of Uruzgan province.

Since the Americans began Operation Mountain Thrust more than two months ago, Allied forces have been surprised by the ferocity of the Taliban counteroffensive, and there is growing evidence that more Afghan tribesmen, disillusioned with the lack of jobs and reconstruction and a corrupt government, are supporting the rebels.

Gen. Richards emphasized that the opium trade was to blame for a major part of Afghanistan’s violence.

“That very evil trade is being threatened by the NATO expansion in the south,” he said. “This is a very noble cause we’re engaged in, and we have to liberate the people from the scourge of those warlords.”

NATO will control security in 75 percent of the country, while the U.S.-led coalition still leads the fight in the eastern provinces along the border with Pakistan. In the south, the force will comprise mainly British, Dutch and Canadians.

“The European countries will need to face the fact that sending forces to the south is going to be dangerous, and I am convinced they are ready to take losses, although we want to minimize them,” said Francesc Vendrell, the representative of the European Union in Kabul.

Tom Koenigs, the head of the United Nations’ mission, told the U.N. Security Council last week that 2,000 Afghans had been killed this year and that there were 54 suicide bombings by extremists. Suicide attacks were unknown in the country until January, when they were introduced after Taliban and al Qaeda militants received training in Iraq.

“The violence is four times what it was in 2005. … At no time since the fall of the Taliban have the prospects for security been more bleak,” Mr. Koenigs said.

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