Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a four-star American general with a long history in special operations, took charge of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Monday, a change of command the Pentagon hopes will turn the tide in an increasingly violent eight-year war.
McChrystal took command from Gen. David McKiernan during a low-key ceremony at the heavily fortified headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in central Kabul. McKiernan was fired last month by Defense Secretary Robert Gates one year into a two-year assignment.
McChrystal, a former commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, is expected to bring a more unconventional approach to a war that has turned increasingly violent the last three years.
"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. We must respect their religion and traditions," 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.
American troops 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.
Civilian casualties the central focus
McChrystal met with President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, who warned the American general 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 United States. The most contentious examples of civilian deaths in U.S. military operations in recent years have involved U.S. Special Operations Forces, which McChrystal used to command.
The four-star general 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 said during testimony before 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.
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.
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