NATO took over eastern Afghanistan from U.S.-led forces Thursday, assuming control of 13,000 American troops and command of the entire country.
The commander of the NATO-led force, British Lt. Gen. David Richards, called the move “historic” in a ceremony attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.
The U.S., with 13,250 troops, will remain the biggest contributor of troops to the 33,000-strong force.
Of the 41,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, only 8,000 U.S. troops will function outside NATO control: those tracking al-Qaida terrorists or involved in air operations. The overall level of American forces will remain around 21,000.
“A key point to remember in this transition is that the United States maintains its full commitment to Afghanistan. It will be undiminished,” Eikenberry said.
Bagram still in U.S. hands
The command consolidation confines direct U.S. control to a single chief enclave: the sprawling American base at Bagram. A U.S. Army helicopter unit based at Kandahar airfield also will remain under American oversight.
U.S.-operated prisons and interrogation centers at Bagram will remain under U.S. command, while NATO will continue to transfer its detainees to Afghan police.
NATO troops took command of southern Afghanistan just two months ago and have struggled to stem escalating violence there. The alliance also has troops in the north and west of the country and patrols the capital, Kabul.
The NATO takeover caps an already historic expansion of missions for the largely European alliance, which was created as a Cold War bulwark against the Soviet Union. Its combat role in southern Afghanistan is the largest the alliance has ever undertaken.
The Taliban have recently staged an unexpected resurgence and stepped up attacks, triggering major battles that have left more than a thousand dead in the past few months.
An American four-star general, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeil, will take charge of both U.S. and NATO forces in February, provided he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The new command structure leaves Eikenberry’s role in doubt. ISAF spokesman Maj. Luke Knittig said he may remain in Afghanistan, but under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy.