NATO takes command from U.S. in southern Afghanistan amid continued violence
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – NATO took over command of insurgency-wracked southern Afghanistan from the United States on Monday, and the top general warned that he will “strike ruthlessly” against Taliban rebels when necessary.To mark the handover, 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 has gradually 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 history – coincides with the deadliest surge in fighting in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.More than 800 people – mostly militants – have been killed since May. Coalition operational commander U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley said at the ceremony that 50 coalition soldiers have died since February.The changeover took place against a backdrop of continued violence.A bomb blast intended for a provincial governor killed eight people at a mosque. And officials said that 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 is 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 Osama bin Laden, now is focusing on eastern Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban are active.”The war on terrorism began here in Afghanistan and it continues today. We must never forget that,” said the leader of U.S.-led coalition forces, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry. “The United States will not leave Afghanistan until the Afghan people tell us the job is done.”The expansion into the region where the hard-line Taliban militia was born is a huge test for NATO, which was founded in 1949 as a deterrent against the Soviet bloc. Since the end of the Cold War, the alliance has conducted aerial combat operations, during the 1990s wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, but the Afghan mission will be its first major ground combat operation.The challenge will be achieving the stability required to allow aid workers to operate in the region, where about a quarter of Afghanistan’s huge opium crop is grown.The takeover in the south follows three days of intense fighting that left nearly 60 suspected Taliban and eight others dead.A bomb planted in a car exploded near a mosque Monday near the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing five police officers and three children, officials said. Sixteen people were wounded.Thousands of mourners had gathered in and around the mosque to mark the death of Younis Khalis, a former mujahedeen commander and Islamic hard-liner who died July 19.Provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Basir Solangi blamed the Taliban for the bombing, which he said he believed was aimed at Nangarhar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, who drove away minutes before the explosion.Sherzai escaped a May 3 assassination attempt when a bomb planted in a jeep exploded outside his office.Some 200 Afghan forces killed 23 Taliban insurgents Sunday in raids near the town of Garmser in Helmand province, which Taliban forces overran and briefly took control of last month, police said.Two more Taliban were killed in a clash with police in southern Zabul province.Ten more insurgents were killed Sunday while fighting Afghan troops in clashes in southeastern Paktika province, and four were detained. Four militants died in explosions while planting bombs in southern Kandahar province.Coalition and Afghan troops killed 20 militants Saturday in southern Uruzgan province, where some 1,500 Dutch troops have deployed.—-Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.