- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

KABUL (AP) — Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a four-star American general with a long history in elite special operations, took charge of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Monday, a change the Pentagon hopes will turn the tide in an increasingly violent eight-year war.

McChrystal took command during a low-key ceremony at the heavily fortified headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in central Kabul. His predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, was fired last month by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates one year into a two-year assignment, and McKiernan quietly left the country earlier this month.

McChrystal is expected to take a more unconventional approach to the increasingly violent campaign in Afghanistan, utilizing decades of experience in special operations — elite military units that typically carry out dangerous and secretive missions.

He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 as a one-star general and later was named commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is seen as well-suited to oversee the special missions in Afghanistan that target insurgent leaders.

Speaking before a crowd of several hundred troops and dignitaries at a ceremony filled with colorful flags and a military band, McChrystal said that the international mission “must recapture the excitement and inspiration that ignited this country” after the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime.

He addressed one of the most contentious issues facing the U.S. and NATO: the deaths of Afghan civilians during military operations, an issue President Hamid Karzai warned the general about when the two met Sunday.

“The Afghan people are at the center of our mission. In reality, they are the mission. We must protect them from violence, whatever its nature,” McChrystal said. “But while operating with care, we will not be timid.”

McChrystal will command the largest international force ever in Afghanistan. A record 56,000 U.S. troops are in the country, alongside 32,000 forces from 41 other countries.

President Barack Obama has increased the U.S. focus on Afghanistan this year, ordering 21,000 new troops to the country even as the U.S. begins to pull troops out of Iraq.

American Marines have poured into Helmand province the last several weeks in an effort to stamp out an insurgency that has a strong hold in the world’s largest opium-poppy growing region. Militant attacks have risen steadily in the last three years and have reached a new high. U.S. Gen. David Petraeus said Afghanistan saw 400 insurgent attacks during the first week of June. In comparison, there were less than 50 attacks per week in January 2004.

On Sunday, Karzai warned McChrystal that the “most important element of the mission” is to protect Afghan civilians.

Civilian casualties during military operations have long been a point of friction between Karzai and the U.S. The most contentious civilian deaths in U.S. military operations in recent years have involved U.S. Special Operations Forces, which McChrystal commanded from 2006 to mid-2008.

In early May, dozens of civilians were killed when U.S. and Afghan troops backed by U.S. fighter aircraft battled militants in southwestern Farah province. The Afghan government says 140 civilians died, while an Afghan human rights group says around 100 were killed. The U.S., however, says no more than 30 civilians were killed in addition to 60 to 65 militants.

McChrystal has already pledged to reduce the number of Afghan villagers killed in fighting, saying he intends to review U.S. and allied operating procedures with an eye to minimizing civilian deaths.

“Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” he told Congress this month.

He also said that if he could obtain more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, it would sharpen the precision of allied attacks, thereby avoiding unwanted casualties.

McChrystal most recently served as the director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, where he was a three-star general. His promotion to commander in Afghanistan was backed by Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and approved by Obama.

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