British-led Nato force takes on hazardous Afghan role

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Nato forces under a British general have taken command of operations in the critically unstable south of Afghanistan, launching the organisation's most potentially hazardous mission since its foundation in 1949.

Lieutenant-General David Richards, a British commander, will run an international force of 18,000 soldiers with major contingents from Britain, Holland, Canada and the United States. More than 15,000 US soldiers remain outside the Nato command structure operating along the eastern border of Afghanistan but will be incorporated into the Nato force by February. It will be the first time since the Second World War that a British general has been the theatre commander of American forces.

At a handover ceremony in the US airbase near Kandahar yesterday, the new commander told reporters that an increase of foreign troops of about 6,000 in the country this year was "of huge significance" for the majority of Afghans who "yearned for the peace, stability and increasing prosperity that we came to deliver. These millions of people should be reassured that they will not be let down".

Gen. Richards is promising to bring a new and more nuanced approach to the problems of the south, which have seen the Taliban insurgency grow steadily more powerful over the past three years. Current military estimates put the strength of the Taliban at about 6,000 fighters, more than double the estimate a year ago.

In contrast to the US-led operations that focused on finding and eliminating the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, the Nato mission is defined specifically as bringing security to facilitate development work. Gen. Richards has outlined a strategy of creating "development zones" in key areas of the south as a way of drawing the local populace away from the Taliban. The region has seen little investment since 2001 and local people complain that the opium economy and insurgency are almost the only sources of work.

The Nato handover came as a two-month US-led offensive, "Operation Mountain Thrust", drew to a close at the weekend. The largest military operation in the country since 2001, it focused on destroying Taliban command-and-control networks. About 800 alleged insurgents are reported to have died. Nineteen Western soldiers were also killed, six of them British.

The offensive prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to complain in June of an excessive focus on killing insurgents. "It is not acceptable for us that in all this fighting, Afghans are dying," he said. "(Even) if they are Taliban, they are sons of this land."

Violence continued across the south over the weekend with 30 Taliban fighters reported killed in separate operations. Yesterday, a rocket attack on a girls' school in the south of the country injured one student and a bomb attack in the east killed eight people, including three children. The target of the bomb was the governor of Nangahar province, Gul Agha Sherzai, who escaped injury.

On Sunday, about 500 British troops took part in "Operation Oqab Qurbani" ("Eagle Victim" in Pashto) around the town of Nawzad, supported by light tanks, Apache and Chinook helicopters. The town has been the scene of heavy fighting between Taliban insurgents for more than a month. It is one of a number of towns in the north of the province held by small British contingents.