U.S. General Takes NATO Helm in Afghanistan U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill has taken command of more than 35,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. The handover ends nine months of British command, marked by increased violence as NATO forces headed south into the Taliban heartland.
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U.S. General Takes NATO Helm in Afghanistan

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U.S. General Takes NATO Helm in Afghanistan

U.S. General Takes NATO Helm in Afghanistan

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

An American general has assumed control of NATO military operations in Afghanistan. His name is Dan McNeill. He's taking over from the British at a time of sharply increased violence and his appointment comes amid warnings of a spring offensive by the Taliban.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Kabul.

And Soraya, I have to ask because we've been hearing a lot about this spring offensive, don't the Taliban always promise a spring offensive?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: They do. In fact, they promise winter offensives, summer offensives, and every kind of offensive you can imagine. But the problem is that Taliban have definitely become stronger, or at least last year that was the indication, given the fact that it was the bloodiest year here since 2001.

So the NATO forces here are taking it very seriously and have been doing their best this winter to try and eliminate some of these offensive potential.

INSKEEP: What's the winter been like?

NELSON: It's actually been pretty quiet in terms of attacks. There have been several every week in various parts of the country. But compared to last year, it's been very quiet.

INSKEEP: Now, how was the appointment of General McNeill, an American, being received in Afghanistan?

NELSON: Well, with mixed feelings. This is a general who was here in 2002-2003, where he led combat forces. And so there's some concern that he may not be as focused on reconstruction as his predecessors were. And there's also the issue that he was here back in 2002, when two Afghan detainees were beaten to death in custody.

And so that's why Afghans are a little concerned. They're not sure if this general is going to come in and be much more aggressive about combat. But people here are very frustrated and tired. And with the growing insecurity and the fact that it's taking so long to rebuild Afghanistan, the tempers are short, shall we say.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about that a little bit. I understand that there was a kind of peace deal in a southern Afghan town that had received a lot of attention between NATO and tribal leaders. It was designed to keep insurgents out and then that deal has collapsed. What happened?

NELSON: What - well, basically what happened is that last month a NATO air strike killed the brother of a Taliban - a local Taliban chief down there. And so in retaliation, he and I don't know how many Taliban fighters poured into the village or town, shall we say, of Musa Qala last Thursday. And they took over the town. They detained the elders. And then they apparently released the elders. There are some conflicting reports about exactly what they're doing there right now.

NATO forces have not gone in. And so we're sort of relying on reports that we're getting from residents via satellite phone and from NATO itself about what the situation is.

But what was particularly interesting is that about 90 minutes before General McNeill took command yesterday, NATO did a precision air strike just outside of Musa Qala and killed the leader of this Taliban attack - his name is Mullah Abdul Ghafour - and killed about 10 additional Taliban fighters.

And so it's unclear now what happens next. The town is still not in the elder's control, according to residents that we spoke to last night. And in fact, we were told that the Taliban have built a basement of some sort in Musa Qala that they've nicknamed Guantanamo, and they're detaining and keeping people there.

And so a lot of residents have fled the town and the future of this deal is very much up in the air.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, are there significant swaths of the country that could be said to be under Taliban control right now?

NELSON: I'm not sure I would say it's under Taliban control, but it's really unclear whose control it's under. They certainly are launching attacks all over the place, all the way from western provinces like Herat all the way to the Pakistani border, where the south and east is where most of it's concentrated at.

But in terms of really who's in control, that's a big issue of debate.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Kabul. Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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