KABUL // United States Marine General Joseph Dunford, expected to oversee the withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, took control of the Nato-led mission today in an elaborate ceremony which emphasised the country's sovereignty.
Gen Dunford takes over from Gen John Allen, who ended a 19-month tour which was arguably one of the most difficult periods in the war, now in its eleventh year.
"Today is not about change, it's about continuity. What has not changed is the will of this coalition," Gen Dunford told a crowd of foreign and Afghan officials in the barricaded headquarters of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghan President Hamid Karzai was absent from the change of command ceremony despite receiving an invitation from ISAF. A spokesman for Mr Karzai declined to comment. Gen Allen, who directed ISAF's transfer of most security across the country to the Afghan army and police, delivered an emotional speech stressing the nation's sovereignty, an issue that has been a thorn in Mr Karzai's relationship with his western backers. "Afghanistan is no longer the place between empires," Gen Allen said, referring to a country where "imperial ambition and dynamics have played out ... for generation after generation". Gen Dunford takes charge at a critical time for President Barack Obama and the military. Nato decided at its 2010 summit in Lisbon to withdraw major combat units, but to continue training and funding Afghan troops and leave a residual force to hunt down Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "much work lies ahead" for Gen Dunford as he tries to meet those objectives while at the same time withdrawing about 100,000 foreign troops, including 66,000 from the US.
Gen Dunford, from Boston, Massachusetts, will face serious challenges as he tries to accommodate an accelerated timetable for handing over the lead for security responsibility to Afghan forces this spring - instead of late summer as originally planned.
"I told him our victory here will never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today and who are taking the field in full force this spring," Gen Allen said.
He added that success would be described as an "Afghan force defending Afghan people, and enabling an Afghan government to serve its citizens. This is victory; this is what winning looks like."
Although the Afghan security forces are almost at their full strength of 352,000, it is unclear if they are yet ready to take on the fight by themselves.
Before departing, Gen Allen admitted that the Afghans still need much work to become an effective and self-sufficient fighting machine, but he said a vast improvement in their abilities was behind a decision to accelerate the timetable for putting them in the lead nationwide this spring when the traditional fighting season begins.
Mr Obama said last month that the Afghans would take over this spring instead of late summer - a decision that could allow the speedier withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
It is also unclear when the remaining 66,000 US troops would return home, or how many American soldiers will remain after the end of 2014.
Mr Obama may use his State of the Union address on Tuesday to announce the next steps for concluding the war and a timetable for withdrawal along with plans for a residual force post-2014.
Much of that depends on the US negotiating a bilateral security agreement with the government that includes the contentious issue of immunity from Afghan prosecution for any US forces that would remain here after 2014. Mr Karzai has said he will put any such decision in the hands of a council of Afghan elders, known as a Loya Jirga.
Although Gen Dempsey said earlier in the week that the US had plans to leave a residual force, a failure to strike a deal on immunity would torpedo any security agreement and lead to a complete pullout of US forces after 2014 - as it did in post-war Iraq. It is widely believed that no Nato-member nation would allow its troops to remain after 2014 to train, or engage in counterterrorism activities, without a similar deal.
The head of Nato joint command in Europe, German Gen. Hans-Lothar Domrose, said the alliance was already making plans for a post-2014 presence, plans he said that were "all well advanced."