Britain hands over Afghanistan to US

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Britain has handed over the Nato command in Afghanistan to the United States as the country enters what is expected to be a decisive round of fighting in the war with the Taliban.

General Dan McNeill took over from General David Richards on the day that a senior Taliban commander Mullah Ghaffar, who had overrun the Helmand town of Musa Qala, was killed in a Nato air strike.

The capture of Musa Qala was seen as a serious blow to British strategy in Afghanistan. An agreement under which troops withdrew in return for local elders guaranteeing security was lauded by UK officials as a model for future deals.

The Taliban attacked Musa Qala on the eve of General Richards' departure. The general had declared that he would not allow the insurgents to control the town. Mullah Ghaffar was reportedly killed with 10 of his men travelling in a convoy, just hours later.

General McNeill, unlike his British colleagues, has been deeply sceptical of the Musa Qala deal, maintaining that the elders had no power to control the Taliban and the town had become a sanctuary for Islamist fighters. The latest events strengthen his hand.

The more combative stance expected to be taken by General McNeill could receive the backing of Asadullah Wafa, the successor of the British protégé Mohammed Daoud, who signed the British-brokered Musa Qala accord, and was subsequently sacked by President Hamid Karzai.

Mr Wafa told The Independent: "There were things in the Musa Qala agreement I was surprised by. I have drawn up a protocol which makes sure that the government of Afghanistan actually rules that place. We cannot allow our enemies sanctuary."

British officers are worried that an over-reaction by the Americans would undermine General Richards' campaign to win the support of local people. Senior defence sources said Mullah Ghaffar had been targeted with Afghan help and indicated that civilians were increasingly disenchanted with insurgent violence.

General Richards was mooted to stay on, possibly in a liaison role, but this did not happen due to " internal Nato politics", said defence sources.

General Richards was denied a reserve force which, he claimed, could have helped break the Taliban last year. General McNeill will have such a reserve in what is expected to be months of conflict as Nato and the Taliban prepare spring offensives.

Following his appointment yesterday General McNeill said the mission was to facilitate the conditions under which "Afghan people might enjoy self-determination, education, health and the peaceful realisation of their hopes and dreams".