Briton takes charge in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The deaths of three British soldiers in Helmand yesterday was a violent start to Lt-Gen David Richards' taking over as Nato head in Afghanistan. The casualties were a grim illustration that Lt-Gen Richards' stewardship of the Nato forces - the first time US troops have been under British field command since the Second World War - will be anything but ceremonial.

Lt-Gen Richards is perhaps better equipped than most others to cope with this extremely difficult command. He has a reputation in the Army as someone who is "prepared to think outside the box" and not afraid to stand up to politicians.

He has already put his imprint on operations, deciding that combat troops have been spread too thinly across Helmand, making outlying posts vulnerable to Taliban attacks. They will be concentrated at bases in Helmand, the vast Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gar.

Lt-Gen Richards has criticised foreign agencies ranging from private security guards to NGOs whose actions aggravated distrust of Western intentions in the Afghan population.

Heprivately believes US troops did not do enough to win hearts and minds in Helmand and that aid projects are now essential to gain the trust of the local population. To implement this he wants to set up secure areas where projects can begin.

Lt-Gen Richards was one of the rising young officers picked out by Sir Mike Jackson, the soon-to-retire Army head, to take the armed forces through a period of transition. He served in high-profile roles in Sierra Leone and East Timor, both military missions with sensitive political overtones.

But his Afghan command, perhaps the toughest in Nato's history, will put him under more critical scrutiny.