- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — NATO took over command of insurgency-wracked southern Afghanistan from the United States yesterday, and the top general warned that he will “strike ruthlessly” against Taliban rebels when necessary.

To mark the transfer, an American soldier holding the flag of the U.S.-led coalition walked out of a white tent shading U.S., European, Canadian and Afghan officials from the baking sun, amid the roar of aircraft taking off nearby. A British soldier then walked in with the standard of the NATO force.

British Lt. Gen. David Richards, the new commander, indicated NATO would continue to use the heavy firepower that has been employed by the coalition in recent months in response to an escalation in militant attacks.

“We will retain the capability and will to strike ruthlessly at the enemies of Afghanistan when required,” he said.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force deployed to Afghanistan three years ago and gradually has expanded its presence to the country’s north and west. Its new mission — considered the most dangerous and challenging in the Western alliance’s 57-year-old history — coincides with the deadliest surge in fighting in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

More than 800 people — mostly militants — have been killed since May. U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the coalition operational commander, said at the ceremony that 50 coalition troops have died since February.

The transfer took place against a backdrop of continued violence.

A bomb blast intended for a provincial governor killed eight persons at a mosque near the eastern city of Jalalabad. Nangarhar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, who drove away minutes before the explosion, had escaped a May 3 assassination attempt.

Officials also said dozens of Taliban had been killed in clashes Sunday, most in southern provinces where NATO has taken command.

NATO hopes to bring a new strategy to fighting the Taliban rebellion: establishing bases rather than chasing militants. It also wants to win the support of residents by creating secure zones where development can take place.

About 8,000 mainly British, Canadian and Dutch forces have deployed to the south, bringing the NATO force’s presence to nearly 18,000 nationwide. A similar number of U.S.-led coalition forces will remain in Afghanistan.

The U.S.-led coalition, first deployed nearly five years ago to unseat the Taliban regime for harboring al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, now is focusing on eastern Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban are active.

“The war on terrorism began here in Afghanistan, and it continues today. We must never forget that,” said Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the leader of the coalition forces. “The United States will not leave Afghanistan until the Afghan people tell us the job is done.”

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