A new U.S. commander, Marine Gen. John R. Allen, formally took control of the war in Afghanistan on Monday, inheriting a nearly decade-long conflict that has cost the lives of at least 1,668 American troops.
Allen succeeds Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is leaving to head the CIA. Petraeus had been in command for only a year, hastily taking the helm after President Obama forced out Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal after a Rolling Stone article on him reported intemperate comments by his staff about the administration’s civilian leadership.
Petraeus’ tenure coincided with a U.S. troop buildup, and the military said the so-called surge of 30,000 additional troops yielded battlefield dividends, particularly in Afghanistan’s south. But senior commanders have described those gains as fragile, and some military officials have voiced fears that the American drawdown that began this month will leave the troops still in the country particularly vulnerable.
Moreover, the risks have risen steadily for Afghan civilians. The United Nations reported last week that noncombatant deaths were up 15% in the first half of 2011 compared with a year earlier. Though insurgents were blamed for 80% of those fatalities, many Afghans lay the blame for the growing danger of daily life at the doorstep of foreign troops.
Allen takes command as many American lawmakers are looking to curtail the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and NATO allies are looking to scale back their presence. Afghan troops this month are taking control of security in seven cities or areas, a process that began this week with the formal transfer of responsibility in Bamiyan, one of the nation’s safest provinces.
Many Afghans, though, are increasingly nervous, particularly after a brazen attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Sunday night killed a senior aide to President Hamid Karzai. In the last week, the Afghan leader suffered another blow: the assassination of his half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the main power broker in southern Afghanistan.
At a transfer ceremony at the heavily fortified headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, Allen vowed to “maintain the momentum” of the Afghan battle.
“I have no illusion of the challenges we face,” said Allen, the first Marine to command the Afghan mission.
This year, the Taliban movement’s traditional spring offensive has resulted in almost no head-to-head battles with U.S. troops. However, levels of troop deaths remain high, mainly because of increasingly powerful and sophisticated improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, employed by the Taliban and other groups. These weapons take a heavy civilian toll as well.
Such a bombing Monday in the east killed three members of the NATO force, Western officials said. A fourth was killed in the south. In keeping with the policy of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, the nationalities were not disclosed. Most of the troops serving in the south and east are Americans.