NATO takes over eastern Afghanistan from U.S.-led coalition, controls whole country

NATO took over eastern Afghanistan from U.S.-led forces Thursday, assuming control of 12,000 U.S. troops and expanding their security mission to the entire country.

The commander of the NATO-led force, British Gen. David Richards, who was promoted to a four-star general Thursday, called the move "historic" in a ceremony also attended by President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry.

The hand-over "illustrates the enduring commitment of NATO and its international partners to the future of this great country," said Richards.

With about 12,000 troops, the U.S. is the biggest contributor to the 31,000-strong NATO force. Britain has 5,200 troops and Germany has 2,750 troops in Afghanistan.

"A key point to remember in this transition is that the United States maintains its full commitment to Afghanistan," Eikenberry said. "As a NATO member, the United States will remain by far the single-largest contributor of troops and military capability."

Eikenberry said that unifying the military command enhances Western troops' effectiveness and allows greater flexibility in the use of assets.

An additional 8,000 U.S. troops those tracking al-Qaida terrorists, helping train Afghan security forces and doing reconstruction work will function outside NATO control.

The command consolidation confines direct U.S. control to a single chief enclave: the sprawling American base at Bagram. A U.S. Army helicopter unit based at Kandahar airfield also will remain under American oversight.

U.S.-operated prisons and interrogation centers at Bagram will remain under U.S. command, while NATO will continue to transfer its detainees to Afghan police, reports AP.

The alliance's troops took command of southern Afghanistan just two months ago and have struggled to stem escalating violence there. It also has troops in the north and west of the country and patrols the capital, Kabul.

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