U.S. general in Afghanistan seen tough on Taliban

KABUL Mon Feb 5, 2007 10:18am EST

1 of 4. (R-L) Outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan British General David Richards, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO's new commander in Afghanistan U.S. General Dan McNeill attend a change of command ceremony in Kabul February 4, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

KABUL (Reuters) - In the final hours of British General David Richards' command of NATO forces in Afghanistan, a much-vaunted and equally criticized truce with tribal elders fell apart as the Taliban overran a key southern town.

His U.S. replacement General Dan McNeill who took over the 33,000 NATO-led troops on Sunday as part of a regular command rotation is expected to place a heavier emphasis on fighting than peace deals, analysts say.

McNeill's command comes as the United States doubles its ground combat troops in Afghanistan in what is likely to be the decisive year in the battle for the country, after the bloodiest year since the Taliban government was ousted in 2001.

Some analysts say the Taliban retaking Musa Qala village in the opium heartland of Helmand province proved peace pacts could not work and only military power could best the rebels.

About 200 guerrillas overran the town on Thursday night, four months after British troops pulled out of weeks of bloody fighting when they struck a peace deal with tribal elders.

REQUESTS IGNORED

Analysts now say McNeill, regarded as tough but fair straight-talker, will abandon similar deals in the pipeline with other towns and hit back hard with the doubling of U.S ground troops that includes a rapid reaction force Richards asked for but was always refused by NATO and the United States.

"(Richards) is an exceptionally creative military thinker and had established very well thought-through concepts as regards to Afghanistan and counter-insurgency." Sean Kay, a security expert and professor of international relations at the Ohio Wesleyan University in the United States, told Reuters.

"But in the end, requests from generals to Brussels for more troops were not met through 2006. The Taliban came on stronger than ever previously, and NATO is now on the precipice of a failure so far as the current mission is defined. But this is certainly not the fault of General Richards and his staff.

"They didn't ever have the support necessary to carry this on successfully. This raises the point: If the top general with the best ideas to date can't achieve this or implement their concepts successfully, what more can we expect?"

Last year saw the worst fighting since U.S-led troops ousted the Taliban in 2001 for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden after September 11.

McNeill, a veteran of Iraq who has also served in Vietnam and South Korea, has complained the world's most powerful army has been under-funded and warns it no longer faces traditional enemies but a network of insurgents with new tactics and no regard for human dignity, the U.S. military has quoted him saying.

During his last tour in Afghanistan, he called for bold military action to bring peace.

Richards says 2006 was the crunch year for the Taliban, boosted by safe havens and training grounds in Pakistan, the former sponsor of the militants.

And NATO killed the Taliban's number three late last year and on Sunday killed the rebel's Musa Qala commander as part of an offensive to retake the village.

McNeill, one of 11 U.S. four-star generals, commanded U.S. troops here in 2002. His takeover speech on Sunday focused on building up the Afghan army and police, a strategy that has not worked here nor in Iraq, but offered no other vision.

"I have every confidence that my successor, with a big injection recently of additional, highly experienced combat troops ... will ... not only contain the insurgency but actually improve on it, to the point where people will see that genuine victory is possible, which will have a huge psychological effect on the people of Afghanistan," Richards said.

(Additional reporting by Peter Graff in London)

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