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U.S. general takes charge in Afghanistan at precarious time

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal formally assumed command Monday of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan, taking charge at one of the most violent junctures of the 8-year-old conflict.

In addition to confronting an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency and presiding over the largest American troop buildup of the war, the four-star general faces rising Afghan anger over civilian deaths and injuries in the course of the fighting.

McChrystal, speaking at the heavily fortified headquarters of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, described the safeguarding of civilian lives as central to the foreign forces’ mission in Afghanistan.

“The Afghan people are at the center of our mission -- in reality, they are our mission,” he said to an audience of senior commanders, Afghan officials and diplomats. “We must protect them from violence, whatever its nature.”

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One of the general’s first actions upon arriving in Afghanistan over the weekend was to meet with President Hamid Karzai, who has been increasingly vocal in his denunciation of civilian casualties at the hands of Western troops. Insurgents also are responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths every year.

Karzai’s office said the president had stressed to McChrystal that recent instances of civilian casualties posed the single greatest threat to public support for the war effort. The general said he and Karzai shared a “common vision that together we will prevail.”

Because special-operations forces have been involved in many cases involving large-scale civilian deaths, McChrystal’s extensive background in special operations may prove a double-edged sword.

Some Afghan and alliance officials believe his presence could herald a greater emphasis on the use of special forces, which operate outside the normal chain of NATO command. However, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, who has just become the highest-ranking officer to serve as chief of public affairs for Western forces in Afghanistan, said McChrystal’s special-operations background rendered him uniquely qualified to emphasize to commanders the “strategic consequences” of battlefield errors that result in civilian deaths.

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The general will embark in coming days on a tour that will take him to command posts and field installations all over Afghanistan, Smith said.

McChrystal assumed command after the abrupt removal last month of Gen. David McKiernan. That unusual change of leadership midway through McKiernan’s expected tenure was seen as reflecting the Obama administration’s concern that the war was going badly.

In his hand-over address, McChrystal warned that there was “no simple solution, no silver bullet” for changing the course of the Afghan conflict, which has supplanted the Iraq war as the U.S. military’s chief focus.

“The situation is complicated, and success will not be quick or easy,” the general said. “But we will focus and learn -- and learn quickly.”

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Record numbers of international forces are in Afghanistan, including about 56,000 American troops and 32,000 from NATO and other allies. Military officials have said they expect combat casualties to increase in coming months as arriving forces push into parts of the country where the Taliban has held sway.

Taliban and other militants have been on the offensive, with attacks having increased about eightfold over levels five years ago. This summer, one of the foreign forces’ main goals will be to provide adequate security for nationwide elections set for Aug. 20.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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