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NATO to command U.S.troops in Afghanistan

Published September 29, 2006

PORTOROZ, Slovenia - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agreed Thursday to put 12,000 U.S. combat troops in eastern Afghanistan under NATO command, possibly as soon as next month, officials said.

The command shift, approved at a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers at this Adriatic resort town, would extend the alliance's area of operations across all of Afghanistan. It would still leave about 10,000 U.S. troops, including special operations units, under exclusive U.S. control with authority to operate throughout the country.

The Bush administration has long sought to draw the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into a larger role in providing security and reconstruction assistance in the country.

Although the move would not increase the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, it comes as a show of unity at a time when Taliban rebels have intensified attacks against NATO forces that took over responsibility for security in the south just two months ago, several officials said.

The U.S. decision to place more than half its forces in Afghanistan under the Atlantic alliance's theater commander, Lt. Gen. David J. Richards of Britain, would put the alliance in control of 32,000 soldiers from 37 countries. Pentagon officials said the 12,000 U.S. troops would be the largest number to fall under the command of a foreign general since at least World War II.

Rumsfeld told reporters that the extension of the alliance's command into the U.S. sector in the east, along the border with Pakistan, would happen "in the days and weeks ahead."

The exact timing of the move appeared linked to whether European governments themselves would provide additional forces that NATO military planners have requested for southern Afghanistan, as well as on easing country-by-country restrictions that limit the use of their troops in combat.

In discussions on Thursday, a NATO official said several countries discussed providing additional troops or equipment, including Denmark, the Czech Republic and Canada. Those offers followed similar public promises of additional help in recent weeks by Poland, which said it would send as many as 1,000 additional troops, and Romania, which also offered forces.

But major European powers, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, have not sent additional troops to the south, saying their armed forces are stretched thin in other parts of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In practical terms, U.S. troops are likely to notice little difference under NATO command. Their day-to-day commander will remain Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley. A U.S. four-star general, Daniel K. McNeil, has been nominated by President Bush to take over as the top NATO commander in Afghanistan from Richards as soon as February.

Asked whether the U.S. soldiers might be used to buttress the alliance's efforts in the south, where British, Canadian and Dutch forces have faced tough fighting while inflicting heavy casualties on Taliban fighters recently, a NATO spokesman, James Appathurai, said he knew of no limits imposed by Washington on where they could go.

But U.S. officials said it was unlikely that U.S. units would be shifted in large numbers to the south because they were needed along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where attacks have also intensified.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 07:41:27]

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