New Afghan mission commander vows to protect civilians

A four-star U.S. general took charge of roughly 88,000 American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan Monday in a move the Pentagon hopes will help advance efforts to end the increasingly violent eight-year war.
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, right, salutes during his assumption of a command ceremony in Kabul on Monday. At left is German Gen. Egon Ramms, commander of the NATO's Joint Force Command. ((Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press))
A four-star U.S. general took charge of roughly 88,000 American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan Monday in a move the Pentagon hopes will help advance efforts to end the increasingly violent eight-year war.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal officially took command during a low-key ceremony at the headquarters of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in central Kabul.

He now commands roughly 88,000 American and NATO soldiers, including some of the most elite troops in the world: Canada's JTF-2 commandos, U.S. marines and British special forces.

Under his command, the mission is expected to rely less on controversial aerial bombings to shut down Taliban bomb-making factories and cut off militant supply routes from Pakistan and make more use of ground operations.

'Afghan people are at the centre of our mission'

Afghan leaders have repeatedly criticized the mission's bombing campaign, and called on NATO and U.S. forces to reduce the civilian death toll from their operations since it erodes support for the international presence in the war-torn country.

"The Afghan people are at the centre of our mission. In reality, they are the mission. We must protect them from violence, whatever its nature. We must respect their religion and traditions," McChrystal said Monday. "But while operating with care, we will not be timid."

McChrystal met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday in Kabul. Karzai, who faces presidential elections later this year, told the general that the "most important element of the mission" is to protect Afghan civilians.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates handpicked McChrystal for the role after firing the previous commander. Gates had complained the mission lacked focus and resources, and said last week he expects to see progress within 18 months.

U.S. President Barack Obama has made the Afghan mission his administration's top overseas military priority, boosting American troop numbers in Afghanistan by 21,000.

McChrystal has experience leading top-secret operations, spending about six years heading the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which includes U.S. Army Delta Force and Navy SEAL units. It's believed troops under his command captured former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and kill former Iraqi militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Lt.-Gen. David Rodriguez was named McChrystal's subordinate and is tasked with handling the day-to-day operations of the mission so McChrystal can focus on planning and strategy.

More than 2,800 Canadians are serving in Afghanistan under the NATO banner, mostly in the violent southern Kandahar province.

The latest Canadian soldier to die in the mission is Cpl. Martin Dubé, 35, who was trying to defuse an explosive device outside Kandahar City on Sunday.

That raises to 120 the total number of Canadian soldiers who have died during the Afghan mission since it began in 2002. One diplomat and two aid workers have also been killed.

With files from The Associated Press